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Gold-plated Perot candidacy making political history


WASHINGTON -- When the book is written on this unparalleled election year, it might be titled "The Buying of the President, 1992."

Or at least the attempt.

Never in the history of modern presidential politics has an independent candidate, unbuttressed by the federal funds awarded to the major-party candidates, spent so much money to try to capture an office as has Ross Perot. And never has any candidate dug as deeply into his own pockets as the mercurial Texas billionaire.

"It's really unprecedented in modern presidential campaigns," says Frank Sorauf, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and author of the newly published "Inside Campaign Finance."

The unique, gold-plated candidacy of Ross Perot has turned this election year into a sort of political science laboratory, with the electorate witnessing a volatile experiment on the effect of money in presidential campaigns. The question looms large: Can the presidency be bought?

Already, Mr. Perot has done well enough that some political observers are troubled. "This is not really a third-party candidate," said Mr. Sorauf. "It's one individual who buys an organization for himself and campaigns almost exclusively through the media and outside the traditional kind of scrutiny candidates go through."

The Dallas businessman has said he will spend $60 million of his self-made fortune, estimated at $3.3 billion, on his abbreviated presidential bid. Last night, he spent $940,000 to air two back-to-back half-hour commercials -- one of them a repeat of his family members praising him, the other a program on "how to build a business" -- before "Monday Night Football" on ABC.

The Bush and Clinton campaigns are limited in the general election to the $55.3 million each is provided in federal funds. The candidates will spend about two-thirds of that on advertising and will be assisted by money from their political parties and other interest groups.

The campaign finance rules were established in the 1970s to level the playing field and keep big-money interests and millionaires from buying the election. But since Mr. Perot is accepting no public money, he has no spending limit.

Even wealthy Nelson Rockefeller, who spent $7 million in his unsuccessful 1968 bid for the Republican nomination -- part of that his own money -- looks like a penny-pincher in comparison to Mr. Perot, who so far has spent nearly $47 million on his campaign, about half of it on TV and radio advertising, his campaign tools of choice.

"He's outspending us every week," says Frank Greer, media adviser to the Clinton campaign.

Since Oct. 1, when he restarted his campaign, Mr. Perot has stayed in front of the television cameras as often as possible. His first campaign trail appearance only came Saturday, and he has met reporters only when he wants to lash out at them.

Also yesterday, his office unveiled nine new 60-second TV spots to add to his ever-growing arsenal of short takes, and announced yet another half-hour ad to air tomorrow night at 11:30 p.m. on CBS.

Mr. Perot has promised to appear on all three networks on election eve and, according to a Bush campaign official, is spending $1 million on radio ads alone next Monday -- enough money to buy five 60-second spots on every big station in every major market in the country.

Neither would many have guessed at the format and content of his half-hour "info-mercials." The candidate who railed against his opponents for straying from straight talk on the economy has devoted only one out of his first six programs to specific ideas for fixing the economy.

Mostly, the segments have been Perot love-fests with the seemingly self-effacing billionaire either being interviewed by his own media adviser about his life or the subject of adoring testimonials from his family, friends, neighbors and associates.

There's some evidence that this media-heavy campaign is effective. In a Newsweek/Gallup poll, 47 percent of those who've seen Mr. Perot's commercials said they were more inclined to vote for him, compared to 38 percent who said the same about Mr. Clinton's ads and 26 percent for Mr. Bush.

Which makes the unorthodox style of the Perot campaign all the more alarming to some. "It's very frightening," says Mr. Greer. "It raises the specter that somebody can just buy one of the most powerful offices in the world without having to face the news media and bypassing the normal political process. I'm not sure that's healthy for a democracy."

But no one is ready to say that the nation's top elected office is for sale that easily. Political analysts point to the fact voters need to feel a candidate has been mixing with real people. The other half of the equation is identifying supporters and making sure they'll get to the polls.

"If you have a billion dollars you can get in and get out and jerk the process around pretty much as you desire," says Stephen Hess, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It doesn't mean you can get elected."

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