Republicans vie for Perot's blessing

Ross Perot has once more demonstrated his skills as a political impresario. Temporarily at least, he will have satisfied his craving for the limelight. But whether this weekend's jamboree of his United We Stand America movement has thrown new light on the 1996 presidential race is another matter.

One after another, Republican contenders for the nomination trooped like suitors before 3,000 followers of the Texas billionaire, making their pitch to the the floating vote and, less obviously, seeking to persuade Mr Perot to stay out of the contest himself.

On the issues - and on the future career of its founder - United We Stand America, the organisation which emerged from Mr Perot's quixotic bid for the White House four years ago, is far from united. But although they range from conservative "America first" nationalists to moderates and mere eccentrics, its members share a dissatisfaction with "business as usual" in Washington and a yearning for a third force in politics.

If applause were the measure of success, Pat Buchanan was the winner. Wrapping around himself Mr Perot's patriotic mantle, the right-wing commentator brought the mainly white, middle-aged delegates to their feet with tirades against Nafta, the United Nations and immigration. "I'll build a steel fence and seal the borders," Mr Buchanan said, to cheers.

Scarcely less successful was Alan Keyes, an evangelical black ex-diplomat and anti-abortion crusader who linked Perot's demands for fiscal responsibility with a call for righteousness. "We'll never balance the budget unless we balance our hearts," he said.

Compared to these spokesmen of moral conservatism, the conventional heavyweights fell flat, none more so than the Senate Majority leader, Bob Dole. Mr Dole is the Republican front-runner for 1996. But at 72, after more than 35 years in Congress, he was for this audience a Washington insider, a symbol of the problem rather than the solution.

Even so, according to recent polls, Mr Dole is running neck and neck with his main rival, Senator Phil Gramm, even here, in Mr Gramm's home state of Texas. Across the rest of the country and in the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr Dole's lead is unassailable.

If the proceedings provided a pointer, it lay in the California Governor, Pete Wilson. He hammered at the themes he hopes will carry him to the White House: the need for welfare reform, his stands against immigration and affirmative action, and law-and-order. If the enthusiasm he generated was a guide, Mr Wilson could emerge as Mr Dole's most dangerous challenger.

But the ringmaster was Mr Perot, bounding on to the stage to present each speaker and capping each speech with a few homilies, his Texas twangstronger than ever on his home turf of Dallas. Mr Perot is keeping his intentions a riddle. Most UWSA members think he should not run, and the Republicans are desperate to keep him on the sidelines, convinced that he would syphon off enough support to deny them the White House, just as he did four years ago, when he took 19 per cent of the vote.

But Mr Perot is giving no promises. "I'm not going to go away as everyone would like," he said yesterday. "I'm like the grain of sand in the oyster, you need me to produce a pearl."And polls show that if the main party candidates in 1996 are President Clinton and Mr Dole, half the voters still want another choice.