Perot saves his billions and seeks contributions

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In a surprise opening gambit to his 1996 White House bid, the billionaire Ross Perot said yesterday he would rely for money on federal funds and contributions from individual supporters - a signal that he plans to make the reform of campaign finance a central theme of his uphill quest for the presidency.

"I want to show Washington that millions of people will contribute to a cause they believe is in the best interest of the country," Mr Perot said, explaining why he would not draw upon his own fortune of an estimated $3bn.

That cause, as during his first presidential run four years ago, still revolves around Mr Perot's insistence on balancing the federal budget. He is already mocking the promise by the Republican candidate Bob Dole of a $548bn across-the-board tax cut as an example of "Washington at its worst". But with President Bill Clinton able to boast that the deficit is now at its lowest since the Carter years, campaign finance reform will come a close second as an issue.

Since 1992, Mr Perot has already lavished about $80m on his political ambitions, starting with his attempt that year for the White House, and his subsequent creation of the Reform Party, whose candidate he is and which is likely to be on the ballot in all 50 states this autumn.

Mr Perot's decision means he is entitled to $29m of federal funds, a sum based on the 19 per cent of the popular vote he won four years ago. But he will be permitted to spend only $50,000 of his own money, and will therefore have to raise $33m in small individual donations, as he is entitled to do, if he is to match the $62m available to the Clinton and Dole campaigns.

Making that task harder, Mr Perot also says he will refuse contributions by political action committees, a prime source of finance from corporations and special interest groups which he declares to be a scourge ofWashington.

Yet as the Republican convention in San Diego showed - and its Democratic counterpart in Chicago will shortly show -corporate money flows as fast as ever. Half the $30m cost of the San Diego convention has been met by companies. "You saw the yachts, the special interest events," Mr Perot said on CNN's Larry King Show. "You don't think these guys want something in return?"

President Clinton's gaudy birthday party-cum-fundraiser in New York on Sunday was open to similar criticism. Relayed to 80 sites across the country, it was expected to raise $10m for the Democratic Party coffers.

The conventional wisdom is that Mr Perot has no chance of repeating his 1992 performance. Erstwhile Perot supporters, it is said, are now likely to return to the Republicans, and Bob Dole, visibly re-energized by the success of the convention and the impact of his vice-presidential choice, Jack Kemp. Mr Perot, by contrast, has yet to find a credible running-mate. But if he can, then he may yet win enough votes to tip the outcome.