ST. LOUIS -- Ross Perot knew he had nailed it even before the applause reached his ears. He knew he had won the first presidential debate even before the hands reached out to grab his hands and to pound his back.
And when he went to his holding room minutes after the debate, he did something uncharacteristic of him: He stopped and watched TV to see what the media analysts -- Masters of the Universe, he calls them -- were saying about him.
"And there was some guy with long hair on there," Perot said later, "and he looked about 23 -- 'course to me everybody looks pretty young -- and he was just burbling away about how obviously I didn't have a plan to do anything or I wouldn't be creating task forces."
And you know what Ross Perot did when he heard that? He laughed. That's how good he felt. Let some hippie whippersnapper dump on him! It didn't matter. None of it mattered, except what he knew to be true: He had stood at the OK Corral with the best gunslingers the others parties had to offer and when the smoke had cleared, he was the lone hombre still grinning.
"Other guys rehearsed," Perot said, making it sound like an indecent act. "Sununu played me for Bush!" Then he laughed. "Me, I was riding horses before the debate. I was teaching my grandson how to shoot a bow and arrow. Nobody coached me; nobody briefed me. Didn't need somebody to tell me what I believe in."
And that is what came across: Bill Clinton programmed to perfection. George Bush repeating the snappy lines he learned at the briefings. And Ross Perot just wingin' it. Just sayin' what he wanted to say the way he wanted to say it.
And that "joke" he told about how he was "all ears"? Well, that was no joke.
He was answering a question on why he favors a 50-cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax and how, though it would hurt the working classes, it would also benefit the working classes because they would get jobs out of it.
"If there's a fairer way," he said. "I'm all ears."
And immediately the debate hall was filled with laughter as the audience took a look at those twin radar dishes of his.
Perot looked momentarily confused -- it was not, as some thought, self-deprecating humor; it was an accidental joke -- and hours after the debate, he was still kind of miffed about it.
He didn't mind people laughing at his ears (not too much, anyway), but he did mind that they weren't paying attention to his words.
"I was disappointed," he said seriously. "I was disappointed everybody focused on the joke instead of what I was trying to say."
He was then asked how he thought he did in the debate and he shrugged. "Didn't get to see myself," he said. "I'll read in the paper tomorrow whether I was tired or sweated or my tie was crooked."
As a matter of fact, an hour after the debate his tie was still crooked, but that was Perot's way of saying he didn't care how he looked on TV, that what he said was important and not what kind of pretty media image he presented.
And he also knew, with two presidential debates to go, the process might get a little tougher.
"If somebody says I did a good job tonight, we'll find out how tough those guys can be in the next two debates," he predicted.
But what are the debates all about when it comes to Perot? Does he really think he can win this election? Or is he debating for another purpose?
"You know, it's fascinating," he said, "what the other parties are promising to do that they didn't come out and say until we came out and ran. By Election Day, all three platforms may be alike."
So is that what the Perot candidacy is all about? To affect the other parties' platforms?
Not a chance.
"If they come over to my platform, then there will be just one real issue left: Are they going to do it or are they going to talk about it?" he said, leaving no doubt that he believed the other two parties are all talk. "When we compete, we compete to win."
And so he actually thinks he can win this thing?
"Both parties have guys reading tea leaves and looking at pyramids trying to find out which states to win," he said. "We want every vote in all 50 states. We don't want just enough votes to win. We want enough votes to win a mandate!"
"We," Ross Perot said, "want it all."