One man can upset the US presidential race. John Lichfield on the little guy's revenge
Ross Perot gave very few press interviews during his 1992 presidential campaign. I claim one of them; it lasted 30 seconds. Four years later, this admittedly brief encounter can still reveal a few things about the tiny Texan with ears as big as Arkansas and an ego as big as Florida.

It happened in Richmond, Virginia, just before the second presidential debate between Perot, George Bush and Bill Clinton. I was wandering in the bowels of the university building where the debate was to take place. Turning from one dreary corridor into another, I stumbled upon the entire feudal retinue of the President as he marched into battle: the Prez, the Secretary of State, Jim Baker (who scowled wickedly at me), the presidential spin doctors, advance men, debate coaches, medical staff and Secret Service guards.

Scuttling into another corridor, I collided with a little man wandering along completely alone. It was Ross Perot, looking like the father of MAD magazine's prototype middle American, Alfred E Newman.

"Hello, Mr Perot, what are you doing here?"

"Just taking a walk. Where ya from? London? Great to have you over here."

"Are you nervous?" I asked.

"Whaaat? Nervous. Nah. Nothing to be nervous about. I just go in there and talk to the American people." And he was gone.

In the previous debate, Perot had wowed the nation: he was funny, fresh, earthy, unscripted, sincere. That night in Richmond, before a live audience, he gave an appalling performance: unprepared, arrogant, bad-tempered. Bush stumbled; Clinton, the chatshow-host politician, shone. The rest is history.

Tonight, Henry Ross Perot, 65, will appear on CNN's Larry King Live. It is four years and one month since he announced that he might join the 1992 campaign on the same show, which has since become, largely thanks to Perot, a kind of folksy, electronic political billboard.

What will Perot say? Is he running again? With Ross, nothing is ever simple. He cannot simply announce his candidacy this time because he is no longer a free agent; he is the head (or, as he insists, the servant) of his own political movement, the Reform Party, founded last year and entirely funded by him. The party is expected to hold its convention to pick its presidential candidate in September.

This will in fact be a "virtual" or "cyber" convention, with a small central gathering and scores of small meetings across the country hooked together by closed-circuit TV and computer modem. This could be the occasion for the first e-mail balloon drop.

Perot has been developing all the software himself. He loves computers, as well he might. He made his original millions in the early Seventies by developing rudimentary software for the then exploding Lyndon Johnson- Richard Nixon welfare state. According to Perot, the politician, that welfare state is now one of a number of evils threatening to destroy America.

The Reform Party has been busy for months harvesting the tens of thousands of signatures and completing the laborious paperwork needed to establish the right of a new political movement to appear on the presidential ballot in all 50 states (each of which has a different set of rules). Earlier this week, Perot announced that he would allow his name to go forward as an independent presidential candidate in Texas and Florida. He said this did not necessarily mean that he was running for the White House in November. It was simply a device to short-circuit the especially wearisome rules in those states and to get a space on the ballot.

In Florida, as demanded by the rules, there is even a Reform Party phantom vice-presidential candidate. He is called Carl Owenby Jr. Don't worry, no one else has ever heard of him either, not even in Florida. According to Ross Verney, the Reform Party's national co-ordinator, Mr Owenby is (in vintage Perot-speak) "just a wonderful person, a small businessman in Florida, active with us over the years, just a great American".

If the Reform Party cyber-convention so dictates, Perot says that he - and the estimable Mr Owenby - will step aside and have other candidates' names substituted for their own. Who might top the ticket if not Mr Perot? The billionaire says only that he knows exactly the person that he wants and that the nation needs. He is called "George Washington the Second". Pressed to be more specific, he says he has "six or seven just incredible people in mind". Pressed to be still more specific, he has been silent.

Some version of the above is presumably what Ross Perot will tell the callers to Larry King Live tonight. It is possible that he will go a little further and state whether he is, at least, ready to be a candidate for his own party's nomination.

All of this is, of course, a charade. Having gone to the trouble, and expense, of creating a political party, it is inconceivable that his party will not run a candidate in November. And it is inconceivable that the candidate will not be Mr Perot himself.

The harder calculation is how successful Perot Two might be, and what impact it might have on the otherwise uninspiring match-up between Bill Clinton and Senator Robert Dole. The Republican candidate gave his own answer to the second question this week when he virtually pleaded with Perot not to run. "Ross, we are the reform party," Dole whined. "What else do you want?"

A good question. Ross Perot did not invent the politics of anti-politics that has dominated the United States for the past four years. Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown were beating a similar drum early in the 1992 campaign. But it was Perot who packaged it brilliantly by seeming not to package it at all.

The original Perot appeal four years ago was to be just a li'l old down- home billionaire who wanted to cut out the money men in US politics by spending only his own money. He offered to bring the same practical business know-how to saving America that he had brought to creating two businesses of his own (he sold the first to General Motors).

Saving America from what? From money politics; from a budget deficit that threatened to make "paupers of our grandchildren"; from unrestricted free trade with a duplicitous rest of the world; from the anxiety that Middle America had stepped off the endless up-escalator of prosperity and stumbled on to a down-escalator.

For a while in May and June 1992, it seemed that Perot might throw all traditional political calculations on their head. He pushed Bill Clinton into a poor third place in the polls. For a week or so, he led President Bush. The bubble was burst by his ill temper in the face of criticism and press investigation of his business career and by his increasingly odd behaviour.

"I've had situations before where I didn't know what my candidate was going to say," said the veteran political operative Ed Rollins, who briefly and unhappily managed the Perot campaign. "I've never known a situation before where I didn't know where my candidate was."

In July - out of the blue - Perot abandoned his campaign. In September, he restarted it. But it was never quite the same. The Perotistas manning the phone banks in the spring and early summer were a cheery and good- hearted cross-section of Americans of most races and backgrounds and political leanings. Many of them never forgave Perot for dropping out. When he returned, there was a harder edge to the Perotistas: they were mostly white, mostly right wing, mostly disgruntled, more male than female.

None the less, in November 1992, Perot took 19 per cent of the vote, the best independent performance for 90 years. Since then his standing has declined, but not much. Opinion polls put him in the mid to high teens.

His message, meanwhile, has been colonised by almost everyone. President Clinton put far more effort into reducing the budget deficit - with some success - than he promised in his 1992 campaign. There was a touch of Perot in Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, which swept the 1994 congressional elections for the Republicans. Steve Forbes made some Perotian appeals in his own rich man's run for the Republican nomination this year. Pat Buchanan, the rabble-rousing political commentator turned politician, occupies many of the same populist squares of the board as Perot - so much so that Buchanan brought down the rafters at the Perot party conference last year. The Texan has apparently never forgiven him for that.

So who will benefit from a Perot campaign? The conventional wisdom is that Perot mostly took votes from President Bush last time and handed the election to Clinton. This is not precisely so. Exit polls at the time suggested that Perot took only slightly more Bush votes than Clinton votes. A third of the Perot electorate would not otherwise have turned out.

Perot's real service to Clinton was to give him a crucial 10 weeks in spring and early summer when his insurgent campaign distracted attention from the Democrat's problems with the Vietnam draft and Gennifer Flowers. When Perot fizzled in July, Clinton was able to emerge - such is the attention span of the US electorate - as virtually a new candidate. What is more, Perot put far more effort into bashing Bush than bashing Clinton, trapping the President in a withering crossfire.

There is a lesson here for this year: it suggests that Clinton may also have something to fear from a Perot second run. Perot is a private man, almost to the point of fetishism. My guess is that the last thing he wants is to be President. "My worst nightmare," he once said, "would be to have to live in the White House and have my cat attacked every day by everybody in the world, you know, much less my family."

What Perot wants - his rich man's hobby - is to have his say (in the most spectacular way) and to decide who is President. It would not be much fun to re-elect the incumbent. He will go after Clinton this year, much more than he will go after Dole. Clinton will be especially vulnerable to Perot's corrosive Texan wit and his apparently unimpeachable morals.

But in the end, Dole is probably right. A Perot candidacy will eat mostly into the crucial Republican constituencies: the white, the male and the angry. A Perot campaign - even if he scores no more than 10 per cent this time - could make a whole swathe of Republican-leaning southern and western states competitive, even winnable, for Clinton. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, for the Clinton re-election campaign, the dream ticket in '96 will be Ross Perot and Carl Owenby.