Puzzling Perot seems ready to run


DALLAS -- Ross Perot said just two weeks ago that he was as likely to become an active presidential candidate again as he was to leap a tall building in a single bound. Now it appears all but certain that he'll leap with both feet into the countdown days of election year '92.

If voters are having a hard time getting a handle on the mercurial Texas billionaire, who's expected to announce his reborn candidacy here at a 4 p.m. press conference today, it may be because his words don't always match his actions or, in some cases, his previous words.

The most profound example, of course, was Mr. Perot's failure to honor his pledge to wage a "world-class campaign" if voters succeeded in getting him on ballots in all 50 states -- his own sort of "Read My Lips" albatross.

But perhaps even more confounding is his insistence, since he suspended the campaign on July 16, that he is not a presidential candidate -- at least "not yet" as he said Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."

In fact, for all of the "will he or won't he?" speculation that's been part of the political landscape for the last eight months, Mr. Perot is in every way, shape and form a candidate for the U.S. presidency. He has declared himself so with the Federal Election Commission. His name will be on the Nov. 3 ballot in every state. And he has continued to pour millions of his own dollars into the effort.

Mr. Perot's non-candidacy candidacy is just one of a number of contradictions, flip-flops and questionable assertions that have accumulated along his unique campaign trail.

Just yesterday, for instance, Mr. Perot claimed on "CBS This Morning" that 1.5 million people called his 800 number in the first 2 1/2 hours after he advertised it on the Larry King show Monday night.

What he didn't say was that the 800 number, which gives the caller a recorded message, automatically counts each call -- whether it is friendly or not -- and some Perot supporters have been instructed to program their phones, if they can, to keep redialing the number. Many people, like Sara Dirkson of New York, a former Perot supporter, called to register her disgust with Perot and was furious when she got the taped message thanking her for calling and saying her call had been counted.

In fact, a volunteer said that the phone lines at Perot headquarters that are manned by operators were cluttered with anti-Perot calls Monday night, a tactic she attributed to the GOP "dirty tricks" department.

Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Perot said he had no interest in participating in presidential debates, even if he were to jump-start his presidential bid. "I don't want to interfere with the two-person debate," he told the Washington Post. On the "Larry King Live" show this Monday night, however, he said he planned to show up in San Diego on Sunday night for a scheduled debate if he became an active candidate this week. "Sure," he said, when asked if he'd enter debates with either or both candidates. "Anywhere, any time. Let's get it on."

In March, he named retired Rear Adm. James Stockdale, a

Vietnam War hero and former prisoner of war, as a temporary stand-in for a running mate in order to get on the ballots in certain states where it was required. Acknowledging that Admiral Stockdale had no real interest in the vice presidency but was helping out a longtime friend, Mr. Perot said he'd name his genuine choice for the No. 2 spot later.

But on Monday, he said that Admiral Stockdale remained on the ticket. "No finer man in this country," he said. "I would stack Jim up against anybody, anywhere, any time."

On issues, too, Mr. Perot has been contradictory. His plan to reduce the deficit, as outlined in his best-selling book, "United We Stand," calls for a bold cut in Social Security benefits. "Taxing an additional 35 percent of the benefits for those who already pay taxes will affect only 18 percent of retirees but will raise $30 billion over five years," he proposes on page 47 of his book.

But speaking to reporters Monday, he said, "I think you could get the impression I wanted to slash Social Security benefits. That's not true. That's not in the platform. That's not in the book. We talked about making a small cut."

In the homestretch of the campaign, Mr. Perot, once again, says he's taking his political cues from the public.

The Texas businessman's calling card, in fact, has been an operation he says is driven from the "bottom up." "Now watch my lips," he told a roomful of reporters on Monday. "I will never be able to get it over to you characters that this decision will be made by millions of Americans. They are going to decide what we do."

But the 50 state coordinators, in whose hands he's entrusted his fate, are not necessarily direct representatives of those millions of Americans. They were, in fact, appointed by Mr. Perot and his associates in Dallas and, according to an internal letter written by Orson Swindle, the paid head of the Perot volunteers, they are the people with whom Mr. Perot and his staff feel "most comfortable."

Each of the coordinators' trips to Dallas this week was financed by the Perot campaign. A number of these "volunteer" coordinators have been paid thousands of dollars.

"Virtually all of the state volunteers are volunteers," the Texas businessman said when asked about their status on "Larry King Live." "I'd say, you know, less than 1 percent of the people are on any kind of a compensation."

But, according to FEC reports, at least eight of the 50 state coordinators are on the Perot payroll, including the Georgia leader who was paid more than $14,000 in July, the California coordinator who was paid almost $8,000 and Maryland coordinator Joan Vinson, who received nearly $3,000 in August. Also on the payroll are at least 50 additional campaign workers.

Similarly, Mr. Perot's assertion this week that "the people" finished up the petition drive "on their own" after he suspended the campaign is a little misleading. In New York, for instance, the people couldn't finish up the petition drive until Mr. Perot hired temporary workers and paid for full-page newspaper ads, spending about $1 million to secure himself a place on the ballot there.

Voters should find out today if Mr. Perot hasn't exactly said what he meant -- or meant what he said.

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