Ross Perot returns today to the old Annapolis haunts he knew as a Naval Academy midshipman, Class of '53, for the ceremonial presentation of petitions putting him on the Maryland ballot as a candidate for president. At the City Dock, the billionaire Texan is to arrive in a flotilla of 24 boats, one for each of the 23 counties and Baltimore City, for one of his well-crafted pep rallies.
Marylanders probably won't know any more about what Mr. Perot would do as president after hearing his twangy tub-thumpers than before. But that doesn't faze this very political non-politician. He has shot to the top of the opinion polls by talking generalities, not programs, as the ultimate ABC candidate (Anybody but Bush or Clinton).
So far this strategy has worked, which is usually the case with his enterprises. But in politics, unlike in a Perot-run business, not everybody salutes. Reporters have been investigating Mr. Perot's alleged penchant for hiring sleuths to snoop on business rivals, the Bush family and, according to one report, his own children. The White House has been eager to paint him as a vengeful, authoritarian figure with little respect for democratic norms. President Bush even suggested his behavior is not "particularly American." Result: a leveling off in his support and a jump in his negative ratings.
While Mr. Perot is unlikely to start churning out Clinton-style position papers soon, voters eventually will want him to get more specific and substantive. For this task, he has as talented a staff as money can buy. His advisers are working on issues, some of which may be delineated when and if there is Mr. Perot's equivalent of a Bull Moose convention. The candidate, supposedly well-briefed, will then have to deal with the deficit and Social Security, among other subjects, without the confused blather heard from him heretofore.
Mr. Perot's resume suggests he is tough enough and smart enough to handle a no-holds-barred three-way race for the presidency. But only the actual campaign will tell. In the meantime, he has done the country a service by shaking up the entrenched two-party Establishment and giving the American people an opportunity to show how eager they are for more choices.
Maryland welcomes Mr. Perot back to Annapolis. If he wanders over to the Naval Academy, he will find his picture among five Navy bigwigs displayed in Bancroft Hall. One of the others is Jimmy Carter, Class of '47, the only Annapolis grad to make it to the White House -- so far.