SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Prospective independent presidential candidate Ross Perot continued his assault on politics-as-usual yesterday as several thousand of the faithful crowded onto the Capitol grounds to hail the filing of more than 1 million signatures to place his name on the California ballot in November.
In an appeal heavy on the themes of patriotism and self-initiative but short on specifics for national recovery, Mr. Perot cited the petition drive's success as proof that his followers, who he said have "turned politics upside down," have the stuff to win the fall election.
He pointed to the rush of his two likely opponents, President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, to emulate him by going directly to the voters on television as evidence of his effectiveness. And he took head-on criticism that with his self-financed campaign he is trying to buy the election.
"My reply is, 'That's right,' " he snapped, as the crowd cheered. "I made that deal with you because you can't afford it." He said that Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton had spent $17 million each by April compared with his own expenditure of $1.4 million by then. "The worst case if you want to say we bought it [is] we got it at the wholesale club," he added.
Midway through his speech, a small group began chanting, "Talk about the issues," but Mr. Perot continued in his motivational mode. He referred only in general terms to the need to rebuild the nation's job, tax and educational bases, infrastructure, and domestic safety against crime and drugs.
The gathering of the petitions in hundreds of marked boxes here and later at a mass picnic in the GOP stronghold of Orange County, south of Los Angeles, constituted a warning shot to Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton that the Texas billionaire is taking dead aim at the nation's richest electoral prize. California will cast 54 electoral votes -- one-fifth of the total needed to win the presidency.
The display was the most impressive yet in the Perot petition drive, in which he has qualified in at least 12 states, with petitions filed in five others. He needed 1 percent of California's registered voters -- 134,781 signatures -- to qualify, but state coordinator Bob Hayden has said the drive will continue until the Aug. 7 filing deadline as an effective means of building the volunteer list.
Although the Democrats have a modest edge among California's registered voters, President Bush should be favored here. The state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964, and its Republican governor, Pete Wilson, is Mr. Bush's state campaign chairman.
But California, with its concentration of defense industries, is among the states hardest hit by the recession. A month ago, a Los Angeles Times poll of 1,469 registered California voters had Mr. Perot in the lead at 39 percent, with the president running third at 25 percent; Mr. Clinton had 26 percent.
After paying relatively little attention to California in his eight years as vice president and nearly four as president, Mr. Bush received a wake-up call from this poll as well as from yesterday's outpouring of Perot signatures. Shortly after Mr. Perot spoke in Sacramento, Mr. Bush was campaigning in the San Francisco Bay area and had meetings scheduled with GOP leaders in the northern and southern parts of the state to rally his flagging troops.
Over the weekend, the president will also meet with business leaders and a taxpayers association. Mr. Bush's state campaign manager, Jack Flanagan, calls this is an essential effort to hold onto the conservative Republican base that is now threatened by Mr. Perot.
In recent years, California has been regarded as a state too large to be organized effectively at the grass-roots level and, hence, one in which campaigning by paid television must be dominant. As a result, Mr. Perot's personal bankroll has been viewed as giving him a great advantage in this area because Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton must run on a set amount of taxpayer funds -- about $56 million each for the fall election.
But the his impressive number of petition signatures suggests that Mr. Perot might also be able to muster an unprecedented grass-roots effort that the president and Mr. Clinton will be hard-pressed to match in the nation's most populous state.
While the Bush campaign fears that the depth of the recession is driving Republicans into the Perot camp, the Democrats must worry about defections from their ranks by party members concerned that Mr. Clinton can't win or can't be trusted.
The first such breakaway of a state Democratic candidate came on the eve of Mr. Perot's California visit. State Assembly candidate Kay Albiani of Elk Grove announced that she would support Mr. Perot. Concerning Mr. Clinton, she said that "like many people, I may agree with much of what Governor Clinton says but do not have faith in him."
Mr. Perot is to speak in Denver today and in Boston tomorrow ) at similar petition-filing events, and Wednesday in Annapolis. Unlike other candidates, he has no campaign plane to accommodate the news media and has barred motorcades that will disrupt traffic -- a typical Perot touch to persuade voters that he is not a traditional politician.