WASHINGTON -- With a travel schedule that criss-crosses the country and self-promotion that just won't quit, Ross Perot appears to be waging the world-class campaign he never had.
More than half a year after his quixotic presidential bid landed the independent candidate with a third-place showing and a healthy 19 million votes, he's kept up -- even stepped up -- his visibility, his clout, his coalition-building, and most of all, his bite.
This time around, he shows no signs of quitting. Without press scrutiny, without debates, he rides around on his jet and on the hopes of voters who still like the sound of his voice.
Behind the scenes, his "volunteers," including paid coordinators in every state, are scrambling to build up his political organization, United We Stand, America, a movement he repeatedly touts as a grass-roots, "bottom-up" operation, even as more and more disenchanted members and leaders describe it as a Dallas-run dictatorship.
For or against?
Exactly what the Texas billionaire is campaigning for, besides continued clout and influence, is less clear these days than what he is campaigning against.
At nearly every stop -- from his rallies in places like Wichita, Kan., to recruit members for United We Stand, to his prime-time infomercials like the one that airs tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC -- the self-appointed watchdog takes a chunk out of President Clinton.
In the last several weeks, he has increased his anti-Clinton vitriol, giving it the kind of sting he reserved for George Bush during last year's race.
Seizing on Mr. Clinton's recent missteps and popularity plunge, Mr. Perot has been everywhere lately, highlighting the president's stumbles and moving closer and closer to declaring him a complete failure.
The more the president blunders, the more Ross Perot blusters.
He sat in his barber's chair for TV cameras recently and got his usual bargain cut to poke fun at Mr. Clinton's $200 trim.
Joining in the criticism of Mr. Clinton as Hollywood groupie, he told David Frost in an interview that aired on PBS Friday night that the average working American can't relate to a president who's got "a different movie star in the White House every night."
Far more lethal, the billionaire businessman said in the Frost interview that Mr. Clinton was so inexperienced and ill-prepared for the presidency that "if you were interviewing him for your company, and you had a medium-sized company, you wouldn't consider giving him a job anywhere above middle management."
He prefaced his remarks by saying, "What we have here is a person who does not have the background or experience for the most difficult job in the world."
The Frost interview capped a week of zingers from Mr. Perot's slingshot.
In an interview on CNN Thursday, he said the president's actions were "self destructive" -- "He hasn't gotten organized . . . and he has a staff whose inexperience level exceeds his."
Two years from now, if Mr. Clinton continues on his present course, Mr. Perot predicted, "he will be so damaged and the country will be so damaged his career will be over."
That morning, he had charged the administration with trying to ram its economic plan through Congress as "a test of manhood. . . . It's a macho thing."
He's called the health care reform plan a "catastrophe," even though it has not yet been unveiled, and Mr. Clinton's proposed deficit trust fund "a joke."
In light of such relentless beatings, the Clinton administration has quit wooing the former presidential hopeful as it had done earlier this year.
The White House has finally conceded that, as Mr. Perot might say, the two will never sing from the same sheet of music.
'Desperate for attention'
"Mr. Perot just strikes me as one of these folks just desperate for attention," Clinton adviser Paul Begala said Thursday, responding to Mr. Perot's comments. "He's just one of these folks who, when he goes to a wedding, he wants to be the bride. When he goes to a funeral, he wants to be the corpse. He just wants to be the center of attention."
Most political strategists believe Mr. Perot just wants to be president, despite his protestations that he'd rather bungee jump without the cord, and is laying the groundwork for a run in 1996.
Republican strategist Frank Luntz, a former pollster for Mr. Perot, said he originally didn't think the Texan was thinking about another go at it in '96.
"I do now," he says emphatically. "I saw his travel schedule. It looks like a candidate's. His schedule is more political and better targeted than those of [likely GOP candidates] Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm and Bob Dole combined."
The post-election Perot has, so far, made 41 appearances in nearly two dozen states -- far more than he did during the campaign -- with more than a dozen scheduled for the next two weeks, including a mid-June rally in Maryland.
His TV appearances continue to be so abundant that news organizations receive several faxes a day from his Dallas headquarters -- some of them marked "FLASH" -- that update his ever-expanding TV schedule.
Public's frustration is deep
"The frustration toward the federal government is so deep that it will be hard for him to wear thin with voters," says Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.
His approval rating has increased since the election, largely because he's no longer being judged as presidential material, but only as a spokesman. And as a spokesman, he goes right to the heart of voters' feelings of alienation, cynicism and frustration -- and a distrust of Washington that is bordering on hatred.
"What Perot says is what people have felt in their hearts and minds for years," says Joan Vinson, the Maryland director of United We Stand and a longtime Perot friend. "And things have gotten progressively worse."
"All he has to do is say what people want to hear. He doesn't have to deliver," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic poll taker who, with Mr. Goeas, conducted a recent survey for U.S. News & World Report on attitudes toward Mr. Perot. "He just has to get it right. He doesn't have to get it done."
In fact, two-thirds of voters believe he would make a poor president, according to their survey. And as Mr. Goeas points out, even George Bush's popularity popped back up from 30 percent to nearly 60 percent after the election, "once the pressure of the decision was taken away and voters could say, 'He's an OK guy.' "
The news media, too, have given Mr. Perot a carefree ride since the election, rarely challenging him as it would a candidate or elected official, but at the same time treating him like, well, like a president.
Talk-show hosts still clamor for his rough-hewn wit and at least one TV network, NBC, finds it difficult to turn away his pie charts and his millions.
On NBC's "Today" show Thursday, Bryant Gumbel asked Mr. Perot if he could stay longer so the interview could be extended, a move sometimes accorded the president or vice president, but rarely talking heads. CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, in an equally extraordinary move, traveled from Washington to the network's New York set for his interview with Mr. Perot later that day.
Perot is ratings booster
The tart-tongued Texan is still a ratings booster. And aside from Bill Clinton, says Mr. Luntz, "he has the most influence of any political figure in America today."
For now, as he harmonizes with the Republican chorus of opposition, he has the ability to make life difficult for Mr. Clinton. "He is a very real problem for Clinton," says Mr. Goeas. "Almost anything he speaks out against keeps Clinton from getting a majority coalition."
In the long term, however, he could spell more trouble for Republicans, who know he draws most heavily from their ranks and would likely split the anti-Clinton vote should he run. Mr. Perot continues to insist that his organization is not about him. "I am insignificant," he says. But, in fact, for now at least, it is only about him.
No other representatives of United We Stand do the talk show circuit, nor has Mr. Perot thrown any of his considerable weight behind candidates in state and local races as he had said his organization would do.
Many political strategists believe Mr. Perot will not endorse other candidates because, as Ms. Lake says, "it wouldn't work. His popularity is not transferable on an individual level."
And there is the risk he might endorse a loser.
"I don't think he has the guts," says Mr. Luntz, his former pollster. "Everyone assumes he's powerful. Why prove them wrong?"
In the recent Texas Senate primary, for instance, Democrat Richard Fisher of Dallas, a top adviser to Mr. Perot's presidential campaign, styled himself and his reform-minded campaign after the Perot operation, but came in fifth with only 8.1 percent of the vote.
Mailing list of 2 million
Although he's kept top-secret the number of Americans who've sent in their $15 checks to become members, some speculate he's amassed a mailing list of up to 2 million, more than the number of contributors to the Democratic and Republican National Committees combined last year. (Ms. Vinson, too, refuses to disclose membership numbers for Maryland, but says they are well on their way to the goal of 20,000.)
But while he lashes out at Mr. Clinton for a house in disarray, his own organization has been plagued by infighting and back-biting. More than a dozen active members and state leaders have left -- or have been asked to leave -- because of conflicts with the Dallas staff who, the disaffected Perotians maintain, are pulling all of the strings.
On several TV programs lately, including ABC's "Nightline" Thursday and Friday, they've accused the leader they once revered of running a "dictatorship," of cultivating a "cult mentality."
Mr. Perot says he doesn't know these people and doesn't know what their gripes are. He bristles at their charges, much as he did whenever he came under fire during the presidential campaign. It is the part of the game he doesn't much care for, the part that doesn't become him. For that reason, pollsters believe candidate Perot will always be far less attractive than watchdog Perot.
"Ross Perot will never be president," says Mr. Luntz. "But he sure can muck up the system."