HOUSTON -- Ross Perot may have lost all credibility, respectability, and surely all electability, but if he waltzes back into the campaign spotlight, as he's hinted at this week, he still has the power to topple this dizzying election year.
A number of strategists, including former Perot campaign adviser Ed Rollins, believe the Texas billionaire will somehow reinvigorate his presidential bid as November grows nearer.
"I don't think he wants to have his epitaph being that he was a quitter," Mr. Rollins said earlier this week in a CBS News interview. "I think he has several things that are coming forth as . . . issues and what-have-you. And I think he liked the limelight. So my sense is he'll get back into it."
While there's little expectation that Mr. Perot would draw beyond single digits even with such a re-energized election bid, he could earn enough of the vote to "have a significant impact in a close election," says President Bush's campaign chairman, Robert Teeter.
Mr. Teeter sees that impact varying from state to state -- with George Bush losing votes to Mr. Perot in heavily Republican states and Bill Clinton losing them in Democratic states.
Other pollsters and strategists are divided in which of the two candidates ultimately stands to lose from a Perot challenge.
The combative computer magnate, who's been flirting with the limelight ever since he dropped out of the race last month and is now touting his economic plan-turned-book, still receives anywhere from 1 percent to 15 percent of the vote in polls.
In the most recent Gallup Poll, those saying they'd still support Mr. Perot are found "disproportionately" among those who would otherwise cast their ballot for Mr. Bush, says Larry Hugick, managing editor of Gallup. He reasons that the core of Mr. Perot's initial support -- which tended to be older, male, affluent suburbanites -- more closely resembles the profile of Republican voters.
But GOP strategist Neil Newhouse says his surveys have shown that Clinton supporters are more likely than Bush supporters to abandon their candidate in favor of a newly-energized Perot option. Those Clinton defectors -- former Perotians and those leaning to, but not completely committed to, Mr. Clinton -- are the very voters Mr. Bush needs to woo over to his side to win, however.
If those more malleable voters are won by Mr. Perot instead of Mr. Bush, "it spells trouble for us," says Mr. Newhouse. "Perot hurts both sides. But in the end, he may hurt Bush more."
On the other hand, GOP strategist Eddie Mahe believes a Perot option could do greater damage to Mr. Clinton. As "a surrogate none-of-the-above," he says, the independent would attract "the most alienated, most hostile, most anti-incumbent and most change-oriented voters," who would likely be in the Democrats' corner this year.
Mr. Mahe suspects that, if the billionaire makes any serious noises about running, it won't be until mid-October, when he can once again offer himself up as an alternative to two bloodied and battle-weary candidates. "If the campaign has been as brutal as I think is possible and probable, and if he delivers that message particularly well, even with all the vulnerabilities he has, it is not impossible that he could really cause major turmoil," says Mr. Mahe.
For his part, Mr. Perot has been making TV appearances this past week in the shadow of the Republican convention, talking about his issues book, "United We Stand," and weighing in with his assessment of the convention.
But while he appeared to be trying to keep his name in the news, perhaps setting the stage for later activity, his former supporters spent the week concentrating on others.
Former Perot supporter Anne Pierce of Houston said that she was trying to learn everything she could about Mr. Bush this week while the convention was going on and that she was beginning to lean toward him. If Mr. Perot came back strong, she said, she'd consider voting for him.
But Ellen Steinberg of Union, N.J., another displaced Perot-backer, who spent the week here hawking a political game she designed, said she was in a complete quandary as to how to vote.