WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot may be fighting the North American Free Trade Agreement with every furious fiber of his being, but as soon as the issue is bumped off the political radar screen, the nation's self-appointed ombudsman will be moving on to the next hot spot.
The Texas billionaire, who continued lobbying Congress yesterday in the wake of Tuesday's head-on crash with Vice President Al Gore, is meeting the White House issue for issue, hoping to build up membership in his organization, United We Stand America, and remain a political force formidable enough for another presidential bid.
"He's definitely not going away after NAFTA," says Orson Swindle, a former Perot chief who broke away to work within the Republican Party.
Last summer, the former independent presidential candidate beat the drum against President Clinton's budget plan, vowing to unseat any lawmaker who voted for the package. In Tuesday night's NAFTA debate, he issued the same threat against those siding with the White House and supporting NAFTA.
The next battleground, he and his supporters say, is health care reform. "Health care is going by, so we'll have to deal with it," Mr. Perot said Tuesday. "Have to. Don't have a choice."
Anticipating a vigilant Perot presence over the next three years, Washington is still trying to measure the power of his punch. But some political strategists, noting that Mr. Perot's appeal has waned since last spring, believe that the more he is in the limelight, the more his popularity -- and influence -- will fade.
Indeed, yesterday's CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that Americans thought Mr. Gore performed better in the TV debate by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, with 35 percent saying they were now more inclined to support the trade pact and only 12 percent less likely.
"Win or lose, Ross Perot comes out [of the NAFTA debate] in a weakened state," says a Democratic consultant, Mark Mellman. "He's demonstrated that he's not terribly stable, not terribly capable and not able to deal with factual situations."
Yesterday, Mr. Perot said he was unconcerned with reaction to his performance. "This is not an athletic contest," he repeated at a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday.
But others believe Mr. Perot's loud voice against NAFTA has made it a high-stakes gamble for him, with defeat of the legislation a major boon and passage, a major blow.
"It's very clear that the defeat of NAFTA is more important to H. Ross Perot than passing it is to the president," says a Republican poll-taker, Ed Goeas.
But he and other pollsters add that Mr. Perot's core of support --which has increased from the 19 percent who voted for him in last year's presidential election to about 24 percent or 25 percent, says Mr. Goeas -- is a solid, unwavering base.
In fact, his supporters rally to the defense of even a testy, short-fused Perot, especially when he appears to be under siege as he did Tuesday night.
"He did the best he could," said Anne Parker, an Annapolis volunteer for United We Stand America. "Mr. Perot is not a polished politician. He doesn't want to be and he's never been."
Betty Montgomery watched the debate along with fellow Perot supporters at the Beacon Drive-In Restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., cheering for the NAFTA critic whenever he spoke. "It was not a great format," she said. "The vice president was rude in his interruptions of Perot all the time. His strategy was to get Perot off-balance and get him upset."
Karlyn Keene Bowman, a polling analyst, believes that, through NAFTA, Mr. Perot has "energized or activated groups of voters not necessarily drawn to him before," such as unions and blue-collar Americans.
Already, Mr. Perot is laying the groundwork for his engagement on health care reform. Although he has offered few specifics about his own ideas or why he opposes the Clinton plan, he has made it clear it will be a target.
Strategists say Mr. Perot needs to be careful about repeatedly taking on the White House with the kind of animus he's displayed over NAFTA.
"If people come to believe the only reason [he's opposing the administration] is for his own self-gain, you'll see a decline in that 24 or 25 percent," says Mr. Goeas. But the administration has some stake in keeping Mr. Perot around for the next three years.
Recent trial heats show that if a three-way presidential race were held today, Mr. Clinton would win. In a straight Democrat-Republican, two-way race -- without the feisty Texas billionaire as a candidate -- the president's re-election is far less certain.