Since re-entering the presidential race at the beginning of the month, Ross Perot has embarked on what may, on a week-by-week basis, prove to be the most expensive political advertising campaign in American history.
In the first two weeks of this month, Mr. Perot spent $24 million on commercials. According to campaign disclosures received Monday by the Federal Election Commission, he spent almost $10.8 million over the next 10 days. On Monday night alone, he spent almost $1 million for an hour-long paid program on ABC.
If Mr. Perot's advertising budget were annualized, it would exceed that of companies like Chrysler and RJR Nabisco.
But as other independently wealthy presidential candidates have proved, out-spending one's opponents, and even outspending big, multinational corporations, is not necessarily the most effective way to get to the Oval Office.
And ever since Sunday night, when Mr. Perot told CBS' "60 Minutes" that he had dropped out of the race because of tips that Republican "dirty tricksters" were planning to disrupt his daughter's wedding, the news about the Texas billionaire has provided a distinctly unflattering contrast to his advertising.
Now the main question seems to be which media image will prevail: the Ross Perot of the news stories ("Paranoid!" "Loony!"), or the Ross Perot of the the advertisements (down-to-earth, sober, pragmatic.)
"The rule is your advertising and your free media have to get out a coordinated message," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University. "That's not happening with Ross Perot. The problem is the interpretation that went out on the news is this guy is paranoid."
Aides to both Gov. Bill Clinton and President Bush were visibly relieved when Mr. Perot began to make news that conflicted with the message of his high-rolling ad campaign. But both sides also said it would be foolhardy for them to underestimate the influence of tens of millions of dollars worth of advertising in the last days of the campaign.
"I think his advertising will have an impact," said Sig Rogich, who is running the Bush ad campaign. "Plus, I happen to think his ads are pretty good."
While they are trying to sort out the impact of Mr. Perot's unusual accusations and the Bush campaign's denials, and relying on polls that still suggest a race in flux, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton seem to be having trouble settling on an end-game advertising strategy to use against each other.
The Bush campaign has produced a new two-minute ad that focuses on the president's qualifications, but has also produced a new ad attacking Mr. Clinton's record in Arkansas. The Clinton campaign, in the meantime, is planning to air a new commercial in which Nobel Prize-winning economists praise the governor's plans to stimulate the economy.
Because it often takes a few days for the latest news to be felt in the polls, it is still too early to tell which image of Mr. Perot is winning: the one in the news or the one in the ads.
But both Democratic and Republican campaign officials say their latest tracking polls suggest that support for Mr. Perot, who had been gaining about a point a day since the last presidential debate, on Oct. 19, seems to have leveled off.
For his part, though, Mr. Perot is continuing to pour money into his campaign at an unprecedented rate. Last Wednesday alone, Mr. Perot added $4.5 million to his campaign treasury and the next day he added another $2.85 million. Almost all of this money, it is expected, will be spent on advertising.
Responding to a question yesterday on the NBC program "Today," Mr. Bush said, ". . . Don't worry about him. He's got plenty left."