Perot: To Pander or to Prickle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is there a connection between last week's Senate votes imposing a crackdown on the lobbying benefits that too many legislators have learned to love and next week's festivities moving Ross Perot back into the political spotlight? The answer is yes, and the best evidence is Senate majority leader Bob Dole's comment that "This is one issue [lobbying] we wanted to get behind us." Indeed, he did.

Mr. Perot, the Dallas billionaire populist who ran for president in 1992 and got 19 percent of the popular vote, remains a GOP nightmare that Republicans have to pretend is a Texas-sized sweet dream. It was his intervention that probably defeated George Bush in the last election, which is why Democrats hope he will run again and Republicans are trying to soft-soap him out of it.

The situation gets complicated because in his dislike of government Mr. Perot anticipated the Gingrich Revolution and in his detestation of lobbying and election law gimmickry he is in league with a lot of liberal Democratic do-gooders.

So is it any wonder that Mr. Dole's Republican caucus was collectively squirming last week when the Democrats, with some conservative GOP support, succeeded at last in curbing the political free lunch and free vacations to glitzy golfing and loose lobby registration practices? Mr. Dole himself backed a provision that would have continued most free meals and gifts. But rather than face the public unrest that Mr. Perot did so much to fuel, he backed down.

You might say, just in time. For next week in Dallas practically all the GOP presidential hopefuls will be there for what has been called a "panderthon." They will be cozying up to Mr. Perot, knowing that to incur his wrath could cost them primary votes. And in the interest of the Grand Old Party, they will try to sugar him up so he won't run again.

By the same token, the president does not mind annoying Mr. Perot. Witness his sending Vice President Al Gore into the fray to beat Mr. Perot hands down in their famous 1993 debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And witness Mr. Clinton's effrontery in daring to turn down a Perot invitation to Dallas. Instead, he is sending Sen. Chris Dodd, who as merely Democratic national chairman is not quite up to the respect Mr. Perot believes is his due.

Perhaps White House political strategists figure that if you irritate Mr. Perot enough he just might run against Mr. Clinton. Which, for them, would be just dandy. Such is the perversity of politics.

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