WASHINGTON -- Spurning Bob Dole's request that he drop out of the presidential race and endorse the Republican nominee, Ross Perot proclaimed yesterday that he was "here to stay," leaving Dole frustrated in the final days of the campaign.
Perot called the overture made to him by Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, "weird and totally inconsequential." He declined to give details about the meeting, which occurred Wednesday in Dallas.
But at an appearance at the National Press Club here yesterday, the Reform Party candidate said: "Am I in this for the long haul? Yes. Do I intend to campaign till the bitter end? Yes."
The Dole campaign, which had been considering various last-minute stratagems to try to erode President Clinton's consistent double-digit lead in the polls, tried to put the best face on the rebuff. Dole officials explained that they simply had nothing to lose by going after Perot's bloc of support.
But aides said the Republican nominee was furious and disgusted that word of his attempt to woo Perot, known only to a few top aides, had been leaked. As he campaigned in the South yesterday, Dole's frustration seemed to bubble to the surface as scolded not only his opponent and the "liberal media" but al
so, it appeared, the voters.
"I wonder sometimes what people are thinking about, or if people are thinking at all, if they've really watched this administration, watched what's happening in the White House," Dole snapped at an appearance in Pensacola, Fla. "Wake up, America! You're about to do yourselves an injustice if you vote for Bill Clinton. If you want to see this country go down the hill in the next four years, you vote for Bill Clinton."
He argued that the news media were bent on re-electing the Democratic president, and lashed out at Clinton. To the president, Dole contended, "this is all a power game. It's a game. It's a game. It's a game. We've lost respect all around the world."
The candidate also acknowledged that he was disheartened by his failure to gain any momentum in the campaign.
"I know everybody gets frustrated," Dole said. "I even get frustrated, and I'm the most optimistic man in America."
Dole refused to answer questions about the Perot matter. Leaving his Florida hotel in the morning, he said, "If you see Ross Perot, call me."
John Buckley, Dole's communications director, said the decision appeal to Perot, whose third-party candidacy is attracting only about 5 percent or 6 percent in the polls, was made in the past few days by a "small group of people" and that Dole supported the idea.
"If there's any chance that those 5 percent could be added to Bob Dole's tally, we should move heaven and earth to try to make it happen," Buckley said, explaining the thinking behind the entreaty to Perot.
But clearly not everyone within the Dole campaign thought it a wise calculation -- especially given Perot's combative and unpredictable nature and the bad blood between the two candidates resulting from Dole's insistence on excluding Perot from the recent campaign debates.
Sheila Burke, Dole's longtime Senate chief of staff and an adviser to his campaign, called the move "completely stupid," echoing the words of a senior Dole official, who added that it "makes no sense."
Roger Stone, a GOP strategist and a former Dole aide, said: "I'm not certain what difference it would make. This is not the Perot of 1992, who was pulling 19 percent of the vote. And I can't see, for reasons of ego, why Perot would consider getting out of the race."
Perot's spokeswoman, Sharon Holman, said that Reform Party members, still bristling from Dole's push to exclude Perot from the debates, were "enraged" that Dole would believe them to have "such a short memory."
Joan Vinson, chairman of the Maryland Reform Party, called the overture "one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. I simply cannot imagine who is doing the thinking in that campaign."
In an ironic twist, Perot's appearance yesterday attracted the most attention he has enjoyed in months -- thanks to Dole's request that he drop out.
Trying to turn a misstep into a stride, the Dole campaign noted that Perot's press club address was mostly a scathing attack on Clinton. Although Perot criticized both the Democratic and Republican nominees for their reliance on special-interest money, he saved his most blistering words for the president.
Perot said it was unfathomable that the country could re-elect a president who faces "huge moral, ethical and criminal problems" and is running a "corrupt" administration. He charged Clinton with tailoring trade policy to foreign interests that made large, possibly illegal campaign donations to him, and with accepting a $20,000 contribution from a drug dealer who was later invited to a White House reception.
"We are headed to a second Watergate and a constitutional crisis in 1997," Perot said.
Asked about Perot's Watergate prediction, Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said, "That's certainly not the president's view of the future, and Ross Perot will have to speak for himself."
Buckley said the Perot speech was the "next best thing" to a Dole endorsement by the Texas billionaire. "If this is Perot's message for the next 10 days, then Clinton will lose," he said.
In fact, Perot's criticism of Dole was muted compared to his attack on Clinton's ethics. Asked if Dole's request to him amounted to an act of desperation, Perot said, "In no way do I want to do anything to harm another candidate's constructive campaign. The thing I can assure you is that I am here, I am here to stay."
Buckley said the meeting between Perot and Reed had been initiated by the Dole campaign, but that Perot was "certainly amenable" to it. The meeting, which involved only the two men, lasted several hours. Perot did not give Reed an immediate answer Wednesday, telling the Dole aide that he would consider the request. Perot did not make his intentions known to the Dole camp until yesterday's speech.
Despite the setback, Dole advisers tried to play down the sense that the campaign was acting out of desperation. "Why is it an act of desperation to ask somebody to support you?" said Republican strategist Donald Devine. "Perot has dropped in and out of races before. It's not unreasonable to think he might do it again."
But Republicans were privately concerned that the move had put the Texan -- and Dole's failed gambit -- center stage in the critical countdown days of the campaign and cost the Republican nominee precious time to get across his campaign message.
"Clearly, this put us back in the spotlight," Perot's spokeswoman, Holman, said gleefully.
Pub Date: 10/25/96