WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot's offer of a million dollars to the Republican Party for a television program attacking President Clinton's health care plan has given new focus to a debate going on within the party. Should it court Perot himself, or just his supporters?
Based on what he did to GOP candidate George Bush in the 1992 election, many Republicans are arguing that it's better, or even imperative, that Perot be brought in under the party tent before 1996. Others, however, warn of his unpredictability and note that he apparently hit a stone wall in trying to buy nationwide television time himself to hit the Clinton plan. They see him as trying to enter a temporary marriage of convenience to climb over that wall.
At least some Republicans also see Perot as a spent political comet whose tail burned out in his debate with Vice President Al Gore on the issue of the North American Free Trade Agreement last year.
But there are few in the party who don't recognize the advantage of luring most of Perot's 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 to the next GOP presidential candidate, or to Republican congressional candidates this fall.
The whole question of what to do about Perot and his voters got a thorough airing the other day in a forum sponsored by the Project for the Republican Future, the new issues group that is the brainchild of William Kristol, former chief of staff for former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Kristol asked the panelists: "Should one appropriate the message without the messenger? Should one appropriate the messenger?"
The consensus seemed to be to go after the Perot voters as aggressively as possible, and swallow Perot along with them if necessary, but to make the Republican message appealing and forward-looking enough to pull the Perot voters in with or without Perot.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who worked for Perot for a time in the 1992 campaign, argued that the Perot voters, coupled with "religious conservatives," could actually produce a Republican majority in Congress this fall because "a vast majority [of both groups] can't wait to get out and vote against the incumbent."
But Luntz agreed with another panelist, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, himself a prospective 1996 presidential candidate, that it is not enough for the Republican Party to voice the opposition to Washington that is central to the Perot voters' lament; it must also say plainly what it is for.
Alexander, who argued that Republicans need to stop talking in Washington jargon and speak in plain language to average Americans, somewhat facetiously suggested that if Perot wanted to make a contribution to the GOP, perhaps he could be asked to run "Dr. Perot's Academy of Common Sense and Plain Talking" for Republican candidates.
Kristol wondered, though, in one of the few derogatory references to Perot, whether it wouldn't turn out to be an "Academy of the Cult of Personality and Crackpot Ideas."
Alexander said that he didn't see anything wrong with taking TC million dollars from Perot, as long as the party spent the money to tell voters what it stands for and intends to do in the future.
What the party should not do, he said, was "crawl around on our knees trying to find out what he's for, so we can be for it." That, he said, would be "pitiful."
Asked about the prospect of Perot running again as an independent or third-party candidate in 1996, the panelists argued that if Perot really wants to bring about change in the country he can best achieve that objective by joining one of the established parties.
But that viewpoint goes to the heart of Ross Perot.
Does he, indeed, really want to bring about change?
Or is he still on an ego trip that precludes throwing in entirely with a party whose leaders, he charged in the 1992 election campaign, tried to sabotage his daughter's wedding?
For all that was said at the Kristol forum, it's pretty obvious that most Republicans would prefer to have the bathwater without the baby -- the Perot voters without Perot.
Appealing to their distaste for Washington and their desire for change is an obvious way to get them, but it's not likely that Perot himself will just go away as that attempt is being made.