WASHINGTON -- The White House aimed another dart in its campaign to deflate the sudden popularity of presidential challenger Ross Perot yesterday, charging that the Texas tycoon threatened to "get" a television reporter whose story he didn't like.
The accusation was timed to take advantage of recent news accounts of Mr. Perot's purported penchant for waging vendettas and to help foster fears of what might happen if the billionaire businessman takes control of the federal police and spy agencies.
The reporter, Sam Donaldson of ABC News, says Mr. Perot never threatened him personally six years ago and he has no recollection of hearing about such a threat. A spokesman for Mr. Perot said the White House was mischaracterizing an attempt to "correct" the ABC story in order to "create fear of him in the public mind."
The White House charge comes two days after President Bush personally joined the growing chorus of critics from his re-election campaign raising doubts about Mr. Perot's fitness for office. It reflects increasing alarm in the Bush camp that the Perot phenomenon is not receding on its own.
"You've got to deflate this thing," Torie Clarke, press secretary for the Bush campaign, said of Mr. Perot's mercurial rise in the polls past both Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.
The charge was volunteered by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater as he was fielding questions about a report in Sunday's editions of the Washington Post that Mr. Perot initiated extensive probes into Mr. Bush's finances after the two had a falling-out in 1986, when Mr. Bush was vice president.
Mr. Fitzwater said the only direct contact he had ever had with Mr. Perot came when the businessman called him and "threatened to get Sam Donaldson" because of a report he had aired on Mr. Perot's efforts to enlist the Reagan White House in his search for U.S. soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam War.