With his last minute return to the presidential race, Ross Perot could dramatically scramble the deck -- or merely play out a losing hand.
Advisers to both President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton agree that the Texas billionaire has virtually no chance of recapturing anywhere near the breadth of support he commanded last summer when he led in several national surveys before he abruptly decided not to run.
But they disagree about how much he could change the dynamic of a race that has left Mr. Clinton holding a lead of nine to 12 percentage points over Mr. Bush in most polls since Labor Day.
"The question is how much does this start the race over again?" says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde. "And I just don't know the answer."
With Mr. Bush trailing -- and with economic news continuing to be gloomy -- Republicans hope Mr. Perot will create enough turbulence to cause voters to reconsider the entire contest. "We were just in a rut," said one senior White House official minutes after Mr. Perot's announcement. "The combination of Perot's emergence, plus the new discussion about debates, have thrown things in some flux and probably gives us a chance to ask voters to take a fresh look."
Clinton advisers insist there is no evidence that Mr. Perot is a big enough pebble to create such dramatic ripples in the presidential race. In Mr. Clinton's private polling this week, aides say, Mr. Perot's support actually dropped in many states as he moved toward his announcement.
A CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll completed Wednesday night showed Mr. Perot drawing just 7 percent of the vote, to Mr. Bush's 35 percent, and Mr. Clinton's 52 percent. Most national surveys completed last week had found Mr. Perot running in double digits.
"I don't think this is going to produce an upheaval," says Stanley B. Greenberg, Mr. Clinton's pollster. "I think it is going to be anti-climactic. It's not going to be as compelling a candidacy as it was, and it will fade like most third-party candidacies toward the end. The overall trend is downward."
Even before he left the race in July, Mr. Perot's support had been eroding, driven down by campaign missteps and allegations about his use of private investigators to collect information on business competitors, political rivals and even his own family members. Mr. Perot denied almost all such allegations, but he had fallen into third place by the time he left the contest.
Mr. Perot returned to the race to the resumption of that drumbeat. Earlier in the week, U.S. News & World Report reported that Mr. Perot once hired a private investigator to follow a Vanderbilt University English professor friendly with his daughter, Nancy Perot; Vanity Fair also aired those allegations this month.
Wednesday, several newspapers reported that Mr. Perot hired private investigators to look into some of his own volunteer coordinators. He also ran into a squall over reports that he complained that two female NBC reporters who had closely questioned him earlier this week were "trying to prove their manhood."
Such controversies -- and the disappointment that followed Mr. Perot's abrupt decision to abandon his campaign last July -- have taken a measureable toll on the billionaire's public image.
In the 11 weeks since he stepped aside, Mr. Perot's negative ratings with the public have reached dimensions that would send most politicians running for cover, not for president.
Depending on the survey, from half to two-thirds of the public now views Mr. Perot negatively -- double or even triple the number with a positive impression of him.
"In the focus groups I've done, people say we gave Mr. Perot a chance, and he wasn't tough enough," says Ed Sarpolus, a Democratic pollster in Lansing, Mich. "They've shut the door on him."
But if he has little chance of being elected himself, Mr. Perot could still influence the election in several ways, analysts say.
If the national race tightens, even a small vote for Mr. Perot could potentially shift the balance in tightly-contested states such as Michigan or Texas.
At the moment, polls do not show Mr. Perot running strongly enough to carry any state -- or even to tip any state from Mr. Clinton to Mr. Bush or vice versa. Polls completed last week in Michigan, for example, found Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Bush by 9 points whether or not Mr. Perot was in the race.
Similarly, a recent New Jersey survey found Mr. Clinton holding a point advantage over Mr. Bush in both a two-and three-way race. Even with Mr. Perot in, Mr. Clinton still holds wide leads in California and New York.
But in a number of other states, Mr. Perot somewhat narrows Mr. Clinton's advantage. Recent surveys show Mr. Perot more meaningfully tightening Mr. Clinton's advantage in such swing states as Colorado, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Most observers believe Mr. Perot would also steepen the climb for Mr. Clinton in Ohio -- a state where the Democrat is currently drawing a large number of conservative, anti-Bush voters.
On the other hand, by drawing away white voters, Mr. Perot moves Mr. Clinton somewhat closer to Mr. Bush in such Southern states as Virginia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
And with his support still substantial in Texas -- private surveys show him getting about one-fifth of the vote -- Mr. Perot guarantees Mr. Bush will have to fight until the end for a state he cannot win without.
But projecting forward from such numbers in September to guess Mr. Perot's ultimate impact in November is a hazardous business. Mr. Perot's effect will depend on a series of factors still unclear, including how he runs and whom he attacks.
Most pollsters expect Mr. Perot's support to continue to recede as the election nears and voters focus on the near-certainty he will not win. "I don't think he can retrieve a significant share of the people who admired him," says independent pollster Andrew Kohut.
Adding to the difficulty Mr. Perot faces in broadening his appeal is the hardening of partisan support behind the two major party candidates since July.
"The Democratic base is as consolidated as it has been in decades," Mr. Greenberg, the Clinton pollster, says. "And Bush, though not to the same extent, has consolidated the Republican base. So there are large parts of the electorate that aren't available."
Even so, a minority of analysts believe the public mood is so volatile that Mr. Perot -- despite all the arrows in his flesh -- could still find a market for his broadsides against both parties, and hold onto a substantial protest vote.
"I think the guy is one good message away from being a real factor, from changing the dynamic of the race," Mr. Lunde, the Democratic consultant, says.
Mr. Perot's prospects of making such a splash will turn on whether he can re-establish enough credibility to sell his plan to eliminate the federal budget deficit, Mr. Lunde says. Early evidence suggests Mr. Perot may have some ground to cover on that front as well.
In his recent round of press conferences and television appearances, Mr. Perot has rarely discussed the austere specifics of his plan -- which include substantial rises in the gasoline tax, a limit on the mortgage deduction for homebuyers, and across-the-board cuts in federal spending.
In his two press conferences Monday after meetings with representatives from Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, Mr. Perot referred to only one specific proposal in the plan, and he misstated it.
Mr. Perot said his plan would affect Social Security benefits only by reducing cost-of-living-increases. In fact, Mr. Perot's manifesto, "United We Stand," proposes to increase the taxes levied on Social Security benefits and cut inflation adjustments for a different program -- federal pensions.
Ronald Brownstein covers national politics for the Los Angeles Times.
Ross Perot's 'First Campaign'
Feb. 20 -- Ross Perot appears on CNN's "Larry King Live" and says he will run for president if "people register me in 50 states." Although Mr. Perot describes the comment as spontaneous, friends say later that they had been discussing the possibility of an independent challenge with him for months.
March 12 -- A phone bank set up to assess support for a presidential bid is swamped by more than 2,000 calls in one hour.
April -- Reporters begin to probe Mr. Perot's past, revealing that he donated more than $26,000 to members of the House Ways and Means Committee in the 1970s and later tried to win a personal $15 million tax break. Mr. Perot also confirms that he dispatched aides to investigate claims President Bush was involved in a 1980 scheme to delay release of Americans held hostage in Iran until after the election.
April 20 -- Documents filed with the Federal Election Commission show Mr. Perot spent more than $400,000 of his own money on his campaign in March.
May 6 -- Mr. Perot announces he is sharply limiting his appearances so he can "spend all my time building an organization, finalizing a strategy and developing carefully thought out positions on each of the major issues."
May 7 -- Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Richard L. Connor charges that Mr. Perot threatened to release photos revealing a personal relationship between a city official and a newspaper employee after the publication of stories critical of Mr. Perot's son, Ross Perot Jr. Mr. Perot denies the allegation.
May 14 -- Media reports reveal that Mr. Perot's father wrote to both Texas senators in 1955 in an attempt to win an early discharge from the Navy for his son. A letter from Ross Perot at the time complained of being "subjected to drunken tales of moral emptiness, passing out penicillin pills and seeing promiscuity on the part of married men." Mr. Perot remained in the Navy for another two years, however, and was honorably discharged. There is another press report of how Mr. Perot pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to spend over a hundred million dollars to expand a Fort Worth cargo airport surrounded by land that Perot-controlled companies are developing.
May 28 -- Mr. Perot creates a controversy when he says he would not appoint homosexuals or adulterers to cabinet-level posts. In an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC, he says "No, I don't want anybody there that will be a point of controversy with the American people. It will distract from the work to be done." Mr. Perot says later that he was quoted out of context, and meant only that he wouldn't want to see a homosexual nominee exposed to a "destructive" confirmation hearing.
June 3 -- Mr. Perot recruits Washington insiders Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins to manage his insurgent campaign. But the political professionals don't get along with the admitted outsider and months later (Sept. 28) Mr. Perot says: "I probably didn't spend two hours with Mr. Rollins the whole time he was here. Some of my associates felt they needed advice from a person with his background. I humored them and let them bring him to Dallas."
June 9 -- Mr. Perot leads both George Bush and Bill Clinton with 36 percent of the vote to Mr. Bush's 30 percent and 26 percent for Mr. Clinton, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll.
June 12 -- Mr. Perot says he would give up his Social Security and Medicare benefits if elected and would call on wealthy senior citizens to voluntarily forgo their entitlements in an attempt to reduce the deficit. Mr. Perot also vows that he would not raise taxes except "in an incredible emergency."
June 23 -- After series of reports that Mr. Perot investigated President Bush and members of his family, Mr. Perot charges the stories are the result of political scheming on the part of Republican operatives.
July 10 -- Mr. Perot's support drops to 30 percent with negative views among voters on the increase, according to a new ABC-Washington Post poll.
July 11 -- In an appearance before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mr. Perot angers members of the group when he refers to blacks as "your people." He later apologizes.
July 15 -- Ed Rollins and several other aides step down, citing "irreconcilable differences" on how to run the campaign.
July 16 -- Mr. Perot drops out of the campaign, saying he cannot win and could cause the election to be decided by the House of Representatives, a prospect that could "disrupt the political process."
Aug. 21 -- Mr. Perot's paperback book, "United We Stand:How We Can Take Back Our Country" appears and immediately soars to the top of the best-seller list.
Sept. 18 -- Hinting he may re-enter the race, Mr. Perot says he does not want to win the presidency but instead hopes to publicize his proposals for cutting the deficit and restoring the economy.
Sept. 23 -- Federal Election Commission documents show that Mr. Perot spent almost $4 million on his campaign in the month following his decision to leave the race.
Sept. 29 -- Top-level emissaries from the Clinton and Bush campaigns meet with Perot supporters in Dallas but apparently fail to convince them that Mr. Perot shouldn't run. Mr. Perot says he will make up his mind by Oct. 1. The Perot campaign, meanwhile, sets up a new toll-free 800 number to receive calls from those who want him to reactive his campaign. The number is programmed to record each call as supporting his re-entry into the race.