Heat's on, and Perot says he likes the kitchen


Annapolis -- ECCENTRIC. Paranoid. Secretive. Un-American. Dangerous. Weird.

If you believe George Bush's team, that's Ross Perot -- a purportedly wacko zillionaire they suddenly find unhealthy to Mr. Bush's 1992 re-election hopes.

Forget the one-time Texas chumminess. The Bush vs. Perot feud is launching 100-megaton insults.

But even Bushniks can't deny Mr. Perot has a knack for political theater. And mano-a-mano combat.

At high noon Wednesday up the glittery channel, so loaded with multi-buck yachts that Annapolis locals call it "Ego Alley," chugged a humble workboat fluttering with flags.

Standing in the cockpit was Ross Perot, wearing an ear-to-ear grin like a pint-sized John Paul Jones.

"Ross! Ross!" bellowed 2,000 Perot fans on sun-baked City Dock, where they celebrated Maryland's petition drive.

Beneath the nice, plastic scene, the Perot campaign has turned to political blood, guts and thunder. If you believe the Bush team's portrayal, Mr. Perot should have sailed into the harbor on a pirate cutter, waving a saber and disemboweling Republicans.

For 90 days the Perot phenomenon was balloons, banners and zooming polls. Now he's hit heavy weather, rocked by a storm of media stories about his investigative fervor and by withering salvos from Bush & Co.

How Mr. Perot deals with his first test may tell us much about would-be President Ross.

So far he's handling it with cocky "they're-out-to-get-me" machismo.

"Hitler's propaganda chiefs would be proud," Mr. Perot said on NBC-TV, a few hours before his Annapolis sail-in, of the White House attacks.

OK, that's Perotesque hype. But clearly, the Bush team had ended its hands-off silence for unprecedented, heavy shelling of Mr. Perot before he announces formally. The Bush strategy: Run up Mr. Perot's negatives early, then turn their guns on Bill Clinton.

If they could paint Mr. Perot as a vindictive, super-snooping Richard Nixon of the 1990s, the Bush outfit might narrow 1992 to a two-man race.

"Imagine Ross Perot in charge of the IRS, CIA and FBI," chimed in Dan Quayle. "Who'd he investigate then?"

"Ross Perot's paranoia knows no bounds," added White House pressflack Marlin Fitzwater.

fTC "Perot imagines we've got cloak-and-dagger guys going through his gold-plated garbage," fired off Rich Bond, Republican National Committee head. "If Perot can't handle criticism, how's he going to handle Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro. Gimme a break!"

President Bush, supposedly infuriated by a report that Mr. Perot had investigated his sons, flared to Barbara Walters: "Leave my kids alone. That's beyond the pale. It makes me sick. I don't think people will see that as American."

Well, say this for Ross Perot: He didn't duck the bombardment of White House insults. He plunged into the offense. After a rambling speech to Annapolis rooters, he met the Bushniks' fusillade head-on. Encircled by 200 bellicose reporters, he counter-punched his way through his first press conference.

"This is a 90-day effort to redefine my personality," said Mr. Perot, blaming the Republican "dirty tricks crowd."

"It's a massive, false assault because they thought I would announce my candidacy. Well, it's animal crackers."

Sun-freckled, talkative, Mr. Perot was alone on stage surrounded by 35 cameras. All Perot mannerisms were on high beam -- the "Me vs. Them" feistiness, ad-libbed sound bites, harsh edge beneath the humor. Mr. Perot was clearly in command for 65 non-stop minutes.

OK, Ross, what about the allegation you investigated Vice President Bush's sons?

"I never spent a minute. Never spent a second. Never spent a nickel," said Mr. Perot. His aides gave reporters copies of a handwritten 1986 Bush note thanking Mr. Perot for calling about his "straight-arrow" children.

Mr. Perot countered that Bush operatives in Texas have been combing over his late mother's will. "They're swarming all over the country, playing cops-and-robbers."

Only three or four times in his business career, insisted Mr. Perot, had he hired private detectives. "I'm not running around in a Sherlock Holmes hat."

In truth, the Bush-Perot battle is a war over myths. Mr. Perot has crafted this Norman Rockwell picture of himself as self-made, All-American, populist billionaire. The Bush team -- amazingly early -- is trying to reshape Mr. Perot as a J. Edgar Hoover-type villain who'd run riot with an enemies list.

Both images are probably phony -- Mr. Perot is neither Horatio Alger nor Dick Nixon. (Even Perot partisans I interviewed are cautiously waiting for him to come into focus.) I suspect he is temporarily damaged by the Bushniks' sniping. But he's proved a stand-up hombre who loves combat.

"You call this tough?" Mr. Perot railed at reporters. "This is Mickey Mouse, tossed salad. This is fuzzball."

The cinch is that a Bush vs. Perot debate will be blood sport. Bill Clinton better find a spectator seat.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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