WASHINGTON -- President Bush joined Democrat Bill Clinton yesterday in opening a direct offensive against Ross Perot, as both of the major-party candidates are now looking over their shoulders with alarm at the independent challenger.
"He's got some good ideas and he's got some nutty ideas," Mr. Bush said of the Texas billionaire whose political fortunes are quickly rising in the wake of his folksy performance in the three presidential debates. "It's a little more complicated than opening the hood, sticking your head in there and saying, 'I'll fix it.' . . . It's a little more difficult in the real world."
The president said during an interview on "CBS This Morning" he understood that people may want to make a "statement of anger" at painful economic circumstances or express support for Mr. Perot's simple, straightforward approach to a cure. But Mr. Bush warned a vote for Mr. Perot would be wasted because, "I don't think he can possibly win."
The president's comments, apparently ad-libbed near the conclusion of an interview he was eager to escape, marked an end to the hands-off treatment Mr. Perot has been getting from both the Democratic and Republican camps since he re-entered the presidential contest last month.
"I don't think there was any strategic design behind it," said James Lake, a senior Bush campaign official, when asked about why the president had decided to risk offending Perot supporters by using the term "nutty."
"That's the way he talks," Mr. Lake said of Mr. Bush, who has frequently invoked the term "nutty" to apply to pollsters over the past few days.
Mr. Clinton also took a more negative tone in referring to Mr. Perot yesterday as he campaigned in Seattle, where he claimed the Texan's strong medicine plan for reducing the deficit would cost 400,000 people their jobs by 1995.
Meanwhile, his Democratic running-mate, Sen. Al Gore, echoed the president's argument that a Perot vote would be wasted.
Americans are "especially eager not to waste their vote, not to cast a vote that will not materially affect the outcome of the race," Mr. Gore said during an interview on NBC's "Today" show.
Mr. Perot, who plans to spend $30 million on television ads in the final 10 days of the campaign, addresses the "wasted vote" in a half-hour spot to be aired tonight at 8 on NBC in which he urges his potential supporters to reject such traditional thinking.
"You are being told that if you vote for me you are throwing your vote away," Mr. Perot says in the ad. "You are throwing your vote away unless you vote your conscience. Don't waste your vote on traditional politicians who promise you everything to get elected but never deliver."
The Democratic front-runner and the trailing incumbent are both expressing what their campaign advisers say is an important message they need to get out in the final days of the campaign: That the real contest is between the president and Mr. Clinton.
"I'm very happy about what's been happening in the last three days," said senior Bush adviser Charles Black. "We need to pull votes away from Clinton."
But he added that a vital second phase of such a strategy is to claim those voters for the president.
"We didn't plan" for the president to begin the effort yesterday, but he said voters must be convinced "it's a Bush-Clinton race -- they need to pick somebody who can win."
Both camps say the independent's latest surge, which has doubled his support since before the debates began Oct. 11, is pulling away more Clinton votes than Bush votes.
But they appear to be equally worried about Mr. Perot's uncertain impact on the race if his support in the polls continues to grow.
Yesterday's Gallup tracking poll taken for CNN/USA Today showed a spread of 44 percent for Mr. Clinton, 32 percent for Mr. Bush and 17 percent for Mr. Perot.
That reflected a 2 percentage point rise for Mr. Perot from a poll taken by the same organization the day before and showed a drop for Mr. Clinton of 1 percentage point. The president's total remained constant.
"I do think he [Perot] takes away more from me than Bush," Mr. Clinton told reporters on his campaign plane yesterday. "Just don't write that the election is over."
An ABC News poll released yesterday shows the same 12-point margin between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush as yesterday's CNN/USA Today survey, compared to a 19-percentage point lead for the Democrat Saturday.
Mr. Perot's total was at 16 percentage points in the ABC poll.
But an NBC poll released last night put Mr. Perot's support even higher, at 19 percent, compared to 47 for Mr. Clinton and 28 for Mr. Bush.
Clinton campaign officials fear a further Perot rise in some Western states, such as Colorado, Arizona and Montana, could cost Mr. Clinton his current lead there over Mr. Bush.