FLEMINGTON, N.J. -- With just nine days to go before Election Day, independent candidate Ross Perot took his first steps onto the campaign trail yesterday, renewing charges of Republican dirty tricks in revealing what he called his true reasons for dropping out of the presidential race last July.
At an exuberant rally of an estimated 25,000 Perot supporters in this small rural town in northwest New Jersey, the Texas billionaire said he received three reports last spring that the Republicans were planning to disrupt his daughter's impending wedding and publicize a "false photo" of her that would "smear" her reputation, a claim he also made on a "60 Minutes" segment last night.
On the CBS program, Mr. Perot said a well-connected Republican friend and two others told him the GOP planned to use computer imaging to doctor a photograph of his daughter, Caroline, and then give it to tabloid newspapers.
He offered no proof of the charge and the only source that he identified has been accused by the FBI of circulating false stories and convicted of electronic eavesdropping, CBS reported.
Still, Mr. Perot insisted here and later in the day in Pittsburgh that staying in the race last summer would have been too great a risk, even though he could not verify the reports passed on to him. "I love her too much to do that to her," he said of his daughter, who was married Aug. 23.
The Bush administration strongly denied the allegation. "There is nothing to it. Preposterous," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "There haven't been any dirty tricks against Ross Perot. . . . This business about his daughter is just crazy."
The spokesman said that Mr. Perot had been told in the past that there was nothing to the accusations, adding, "I have no idea what he is up to."
The explanation cited by Mr. Perot yesterday for his abrupt withdrawal from the presidential race in July is at odds with the reasons he gave at the time, that he was bowing out because the Democratic Party appeared to be unified and he didn't want to be a disruptive force in the election.
He said yesterday that he didn't mention his fears about a GOP smear campaign on his daughter because he didn't want to tell her about it.
He decided to reactivate his candidacy, he said, when his daughter, upon returning from her honeymoon and learning of the alleged plan from her father, told him, " 'OK, the wedding's over, the honeymoon's over, get back in the race.' "
$ Wiretap also alleged
On "60 Minutes," Mr. Perot also contended that the Bush campaign intended to wiretap his Dallas business office, another suspicion that came to him from Scott Barnes, the Arizona man discredited by the FBI. "This is Watergate II," he said.
But the head of the FBI's Dallas office said on last night's program he investigated and found no evidence of wiretapping plans or any evidence of wrongdoing by any presidential campaign.
Bush officials described Mr. Perot as highly paranoid earlier in his campaign, when reports of the businessman's frequent use of ** private investigators was uncovered.
Yesterday, the Bush campaign lashed out at CBS for airing the Perot segment. "With just 10 days to go before the election it is the height of irresponsibility for '60 Minutes' to air these unsubstantiated charges," a statement said.
"Simply airing these allegations has accomplished Mr. Barnes' mission of implicating the campaign in wrongdoing with no credible evidence whatsoever."
At a late afternoon rally in Pittsburgh, Mr. Perot repeated the charges, saying he heard about the plan to disrupt his daughter's church wedding from a source "away from government" and another one close to the Republican party.
But he also appeared to back away from the bold accusations, telling his supporters, who booed at his mention of GOP dirty tricks, to "leave it right there in your minds. Forget it. Don't spend five more minutes fretting about it."
Mr. Perot often accused the Bush camp of dirty tricks in the first round of his candidacy, but his charges of being victimized by his opponents always have been vague and difficult to confirm. Similarly, ABC News said last week that it was unable to substantiate one of Mr. Perot's oft-told charges that five men with rifles crossed his front lawn at a time he feared the North Vietnamese were trying to kill him.
( Live campaign appearance
Mr. Perot's afternoon campaign appearance at the Flemington Speedway, and later at a Pittsburgh convention center, marked the first time the unorthodox candidate has come out from behind the television cameras and hit the hustings since rejoining the race Oct. 1.
Sunday's events closely resembled the pep rallies that marked his early campaign, with Mr. Perot, his wife, Margot, by his side, hurling his trademark lines about getting under the car hood, into the trenches and going to Washington as the people's servant, along with a few new ones.
"Either we're gonna fix it or we're gonna sleepwalk," he said, referring to what he calls the mess in Washington. And later: "Are you ready to suck it up, strap it on and go for it?"
Since the presidential debates -- where the feisty Texan's
snappy one-liners and plain talk reminded some voters of why they were so taken with him last spring -- his support and favorable ratings have been on the rise, aided by a multimillion dollar TV advertising blitz. In national polls, his support is now hovering around 20 percentage points, and some state surveys place him even higher.
Even so, Mr. Perot is still a distant third and faces a major obstacle in convincing Americans they won't be wasting their vote if they cast their ballot for him.
He's addressed that concern in his latest 60-second TV spots, in the 30-minute "info-mercials" that ran last Friday and Saturday nights and at yesterday's rallies.
"Everybody who knows anything about politics is urging everyone across the country, 'Don't throw your vote away,' " Mr. Perot said at the New Jersey rally near the town of Clinton.
He told the wildly enthusiastic crowd to form a human "chain letter" and each convince five people, who would in turn convince five more people, to vote for him.
Later in the day, he told the Pittsburgh crowd, "If you keep voting for business as usual you're wasting your vote."
Trust issue raised
Besides presenting himself as a fiscal Mr. Fix-it who would "send a guy [into Congress] with a chainsaw" to end the gridlock, Mr. Perot seemed to join President Bush in raising trust and character issues that appeared pointed at Democrat Bill Clinton.
He urged the crowd here to ask themselves, when they entered the voting booth, "which one of the three candidates, as a young man, would you want your daughter to marry? Ears and all. . . . Which of the three candidates would be the best role model for your children?"
Although he called his opponents' economic plans "soft as jelly," he avoided any specifics about his austere proposal of hefty tax increases and spending cuts, except to say, "We're talking about shared sacrifice and the sooner we start, the sooner we get it over with."
The crowd of Perot believers, wrapped in blankets and parkas on a blustery day, waved signs of "President Perot to the Rescue" and "Ross Perot -- A Practical American."
But, like much of the electorate this year, many who attended yesterday's events were still confused. in a state of confusion.
"I've been swaying back and forth ever since this whole thing started," said Tracie Lynch, a Republican housewife from Easton, Pa., who's leaning toward Mr. Perot. "I still feel a strong loyalty to the Bushes. They're like your grandparents up in Washington. Can I be swayed back to them? Maybe. It's just that gridlock thing that everybody's been talking about. It's still a factor for me."
Until yesterday, Mr. Perot had confined his abbreviated and unique campaign to television -- to the three presidential debates and the blizzard of commercials on which he has far outspent his opponents.
Mr. Perot said yesterday he will spend more than $60 million of his own money on his presidential bid and he is well on his way, already having spent about $47 million, much of it on television time.
The ads appear to be paying off. Former Clinton supporter Susan Kreiss, a dog groomer who lives in Edison, N.J., said the half-hour Perot spots have pushed her over to the independent candidate's corner. "Not the ones with all the charts. The personal ones," she said of his ads. "He seems like someone you can really trust."
Mr. Perot has paid $940,000 for an hour of air time tonight on ABC just before "Monday Night Football," and said that later this week he'll broadcast a program on how to create jobs. On election eve, he plans to be on all three networks.