Perot sets stage for return to the presidential fray

TO THE scorn of some, the indifference of many but the thinly concealed anxiety of both main party candidates, the Texas billionaire Ross Perot has set the stage for a return to the presidential contest he never formally joined, just five weeks before polling day.

Amid a crescendo of speculation, Perot aides said yesterday that the one-time independent candidate would hold a news conference in Dallas on Monday after meetings with his campaign co-ordinators from all 50 states where he is on the November ballot, and with representatives of both President Bush and the Democrat, Bill Clinton. That night he is due to appear on Cable News Network's Larry King show, the forum he first used to indicate readiness to challenge the White House.

The Los Angeles Times had reported Mr Perot had already decided to cast his hat into the ring once more. The paper quoted an unidentified associate as saying that he had resolved 'reluctantly' to offer his services 'for the good of the country', after what he considers the failure of both Mr Bush and Mr Clinton to address the budget deficit problem.

Mr Perot's most recent public utterance was to declare that withdrawal from the race last July had been in retrospect 'a mistake'. If his volunteer supporters wished him to re-enter, he would do so. Given that this seems to be the fervent desire of the 'Perotistas', Monday could be the day.

But as ever with Mr Perot, calculations are not as obvious as they look. He has never hidden his eagerness to be a factor in the election, even from the sidelines. The big television networks have said they will only run Perot advertising during the campaign if he formally becomes a candidate.

If he does jump in, he is unlikely to undertake anything like a normal candidate's schedule, confining himself instead to pre-paid television 'town hall' meetings and the familiar appearances on talk shows where he excels. He will refuse to discuss any topic other than the economy.

Apart from the certainty that he cannot win, how Mr Perot would fare is anyone's guess. Polls give him between 12 per cent and the 20 per cent figure in a new Harris poll yesterday. Even in a three- way race, however, Governor Clinton remains ahead according to Harris, by 45 per cent to 31 per cent for Mr Bush. In a straight two-way contest, the Arkansas Governor leads Mr Bush 53-38.

The consensus is that as election day approaches, the Texas billionaire's support will wither. His disapproval ratings are far higher than they were when he bowed out in July. In a first reaction yesterday, Mr Clinton said it was 'fine by me' if Mr Perot ran, while Mr Bush laconically said the possibility was 'interesting'.

A tremor of uncertainty is going through both camps. Clinton advisers fear Mr Perot could cut their man's lead in Western and industrial belt states, enough to hand them to Mr Bush. But the Republicans are no less anxious about the potential impact in regions the President must win in November, notably Florida and Mr Bush's adopted state of Texas, where even single-figure backing for Mr Perot could be disastrous.

What alarms the White House is the possibility that Mr Perot, whose scant regard for the President is famous, could cut a deal with Mr Clinton, or even endorse him. A clue came last night from the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Senator Al Gore.

In an interview with David Frost, Mr Gore denied an offer had been made, but left the door open to a Perot role in a Clinton administration. He would make 'an effective member of anybody's team,' Mr Gore said. 'Given the appropriate circumstances, you know, I'm not speaking for anybody . . . I like him.'

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