Perot stages Dallas drama

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The Independent Online
Three years ago, Ross Perot briefly mesmerised America with the most potent independent run for the presidency in 80 years. This weekend the pint-sized Texas billionaire is at it again - staging a political and media spectacular that might yet decide the outcome of the 1996 race for the White House.

"Preparing Our Country for the 21st century" is the suitably grandiose official title for the three-day gathering in Dallas organised by Mr Perot's political movement, United We Stand America. But a better name would be "Republican Runners and Riders: Keeping Ross Out Of The Race, and Chasing The Potential Third-Party Vote In 1996."

So important is the prize that the entire Republican field is trooping to the stifling 100-degree heat of Dallas to pay homage. Widely perceived as megalomaniac and semi-paranoid, his credibility lastingly dented by his trouncing by Vice-President Al Gore in their famous debate on free trade with Mexico in the autumn of 1993, Mr Perot is nowhere as popular as in 1992. While he has not ruled out another run next year, few expect one. None the less, a new ABC/Washington Post poll gives him 17 per cent of a potential three-way match up with President Clinton and the Republican front-runner Bob Dole.

Each of the nine would-be Presidents will be making 30-minute individual pitches in a day-long session today, and each will have a double objective. One of course is selling his particular policies to a large segment of undecided voters. The other is a shared goal - to keep Mr Perot out of the race.

Every Republican strategist knows that Mr Clinton's best chance of retaining the White House is a third-party candidate to split the anti-Democrat vote. Thanks to Mr Perot, Mr Clinton won in 1992 with only 43 per cent of the popular vote, and the argument holds truer than ever today. In last November's mid-term elections, Perot voters split 2 to 1 in favour of Republican candidates.

But there is a whiff of unreality in the air in Dallas, reflecting a lingering unreality in the Republican race thus far. Currently, Mr Dole bestrides the stage. The Senate majority leader, according to a new poll, is favoured by 46 per cent of potential Republican primary voters, more than four times his nearest rival, Pat Buchanan, the "social conservative" commentator and former Reagan speechwriter. Phil Gramm, the Texas senator who will be on home territory in Dallas, trails third with 9 per cent. Governor Pete Wilson of California and Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, have 4 per cent apiece. The rest are nowhere.

But in a year when anti-Washington sentiment runs stronger than ever, the front-runner is the ultimate Washington insider, who, if he wins in 1996 would at 73, be the oldest man to enter the White House. So unappealing does the public find the prospect that 43 per cent in the ABC/Post poll say if Messrs Clinton and Dole are the big-party nominees, they would want a third-party candidate.

Hence the casting around for a new face. One superficially alluring possibility was Speaker Newt Gingrich. However, his popularity had been waning. even before this week's lurid profile in Vanity Fair magazine.

Sphinx-like in the background stands Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shown in poll after poll to be easily the most respected public figure in the country but whose political intentions and allegiance remain the deepest mystery.