Even Perot faithful are losing some faith ON POLITICS


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Not all of Dee Zuber's fellow Perot supporters had cable television, so she invited them over the other night to eat fried chicken and watch their favorite non-politician on the "Larry King Live" show. Ross Perot did not yet, as speculated, announce that he was back in the presidential race, but she and the others weren't disappointed. They figured it was only a matter of time.

After the show, in which Perot said once again that it was up to "the volunteers" in his United We Stand America movement he has bankrolled to make the decision on running, it was unanimous. "We all want him to run," she said, and other Ohio supporters began phoning her asking what they should do to make their sentiments known.

Other leaders and participants in the petition drive that put Perot on the Ohio ballot are not nearly so upbeat about the Texas billionaire's performance, or about the other big Perot event of the day -- the command performance of Bush and Clinton campaign leaders to Dallas to pitch for support of the Perot movement.

Clifford Arnebeck, one of the original organizers of the Perot petition drive in Ohio who has now endorsed President Bush, calls it a "dog-and-pony show" and a "charade." It was, he says, "like going to an evangelist's followers and asking them to seriously listen to others' religious views."

Arnebeck insists that Perot has been engaged all along "in a Machiavellian strategy to win the presidency" by dropping out in mid-July and thus avoiding for two critical months the press scrutiny that had him on the ropes when he pulled out.

"Perot is not the Mother Teresa of American politics or the Hamlet of American politics," he says. As one who represented Ohio at the meeting of state coordinators called the weekend after his July withdrawal, Arnebeck says, he remembers Perot saying explicitly that if neither Bush nor Clinton "stepped up to the plate with a deficit reduction plan, he might be in for an October Surprise."

That was the real reason, Arnebeck speculates, that Perot urged his followers to continue to collect petitions to get him on the ballot in all 50 states. Now Arnebeck says he fears there will be insufficient time before the election for the news media to explore Perot's background. "Now he says if he gets in he will talk only about the issues," Arnebeck notes. Marshall Sanders, who put aside his graphic design business to help run the Perot petition drive and took a big loss as a result, says of the Dallas meeting: "He must be some kind of egomaniac when he pulls these kinds of shenanigans. I don't think that his vote bloc is big enough to merit them [the Bush and Clinton leaders] going down there."

Sanders, who is now supporting Clinton, is not only disillusioned with Perot for having betrayed his promise to run the first time around, but for his continued dodging on specifics. "The man can't answer a simple question," he says. "I think that will cost him in the end." From now until Election Day, Sanders says, he will try to persuade former Perot supporters to back Clinton as the candidate who "stands for a lot of change" as opposed to Bush who "stands for a little change" and Perot who "stands for radical change."

Still another former Perot leader in Ohio, Maria Kostos of Cleveland, says she was "real disappointed that he was catered to" by the Bush and Clinton leaders who traipsed to Dallas to ask for support of the Perot bloc.

Now a Clinton supporter, she blames herself for being misled by Perot and for not taking a better look at Clinton earlier. She is now heading a committee urging other former Perot backers to do so.

Zuber looks upon such defections from the old Perot ranks, and at Perot's admitted "mistake" in quitting the race in July, with the all-for-the-best attitude of the true believer. "It's almost good that he got out when he did," she says, "because the bad guys got out and the good people stayed in. It was a sort of cleansing thing. It's like rats off a sinking ship."

In saying that, she excludes Sanders, praising him as an honorable man who got a raw deal from "Dallas" in internal maneuverings that shunted him aside in favor of Arnebeck. In such comments, Zuber seems to absolve Perot himself. To the faithful, he is still Mr. Fixit who is above personal gain or blame.

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