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Perot hints that he may rejoin presidential race

MAYBE it's a yearning for redemption, or perhaps just an insatiable craving for the limelight. Maybe he genuinely believes he is the down-home Messiah to save his nation and above all its finances. Whatever the case, Ross Perot is back on the edge of the presidential campaign, spewing out homilies as if the fiasco of last July had never happened.

Via asides from prominent backers, in appearances on breakfast television shows, and, most tantalisingly of all, in an interview this week with the Los Angeles Times, the man who briefly threatened the strongest independent challenge for the White House in 80 years is hinting anew that, yes, just possibly, he might re-enter a race he never truly joined.

After the humiliation of two months ago, when his quasi-candidacy disintegrated amid squabbling aides and relentless press examination of his business record, the billionaire tycoon from Texarkana has not the slightest chance of winning the election.

But, he calculates, he still has the capacity to influence its outcome.

His perceived lever is the ever-explosive issue of the budget deficit and the failure of both President Bush and Bill Clinton to address it seriously.

Polls continue to suggest that up to a fifth of likely voters are tempted to support Mr Perot. United We Stand, the paperback setting out his blueprint of how to put the country to rights, currently tops the US best-seller lists. Right behind it in second place, incidentally, is another volume entitled America, What Went Wrong. Of the anxious mood of the country, there is no doubt.

'If all his campaign directors in the states ask him, he'll run,' insists Joan Vinson-Stalling, in charge of the Perot operation in Maryland. 'The latent support is there. But after the disappointment caused by his abrupt withdrawal, he'll have to make a real effort to reach out and get it.'

Thus far, Mr Perot has not done so: 'I am not a candidate,' he told ABC television the other day. Today, however, Arizona is due to become the 50th and last state to put him on the November ballot. At that point some further word is expected on his intentions. Nor has it escaped notice that, despite suggestions by various state authorities that he withdraw his name from their ballots, he has steadfastly refused to do so.

Skeleton teams still function across the country, kept alive by dollars 500,000 (pounds 282,000) a month out of Mr Perot's pocket. In honour of the book, the former 'Perot for President' campaign has been rechristened 'United We Stand America'. In his conversation with the Los Angeles Times the erstwhile quasi-candidate gave the plainest hint yet that some call may come. It was 'unrealistic' for the two candidates to ignore the deficit issue. If they persisted in doing so, he would re-enter the fray.

After what happened in July, a full- scale effort is unimaginable. Once burned, Mr Perot cannot and will not rebuild a full-scale staff, nor expose himself to fresh media scrutiny. The lurid 'kiss and tell' stories now appearing in magazines such as Vanity Fair are warning enough. Instead he will position himself loftily above the hurly-burly, portraying himself as the disinterested saviour of his nation.

If he does, then the potential for mischief-making exists. The Bush camp is terrified of a Perot deal with Mr Clinton in the last weeks of the campaign, tantamount to an endorsement and predicated on a promise to tackle the deficit. The Clinton campaign is edgy, too: every sign is that if a neutral Mr Perot did mobilise his former supporters, their man would suffer disproportionately.

US history teaches that independent candidacies tend to shrivel as election day approaches. But if this contest tightens, even 3 per cent or 4 per cent in a few key states could make the difference. Perot the spoiler could have a big impact in Texas, where a putative three-way race would right now be a statistical dead heat, in California and elsewhere in the Midwest and West.