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The US Presidential Elections: 'Inspector Perot' fails to prove his case

SEQUELS, whether in movies or politics, rarely match up to the original. But Ross Perot, for a day or two at least, is having a pretty good shot at it. Just like last summer, however, what could have been the most serious independent bid for the White House this century threatens to dissolve into another 'Inspector Perot' spectacular.

A week before polling, the entire dynamic of a presidential election is on the brink of being upset by Mr Perot's eleventh-hour surge in the polls. Yesterday though, such weighty considerations were abruptly secondary, as the conspiracy theorist from Dallas indulged his pastime of predilection: accusing the Republican 'dirty tricks' brigade of seeking to sabotage his campaign by the foulest means to hand.

The show began in earnest at the weekend, when Mr Perot explained to an astonished country his real reason for withdrawing from the contest in July. He said that he believed the Republicans were plotting to bug his office, and to disrupt his daughter's wedding the following month. But as before, not a shred of evidence was forthcoming, just the word of 'three or four' informants of whom the only one he identified was one Scott Barnes, a former California police officer and a notorious peddler of bizarre plot scenarios.

Yesterday brought Episode Two: an hour-long news briefing at his Dallas headquarters at which Mr Perot vainly tried to shift his campaign, as he is fond of saying, 'back to the issues'. Not so, however. Almost every question was about the dirty tricks, to which the irascible billionaire responded with no fresh evidence, but the now familiar tirade against the press.

At first he seemed to climb down, accepting the Bush camp's dismissal of the allegations as 'preposterous'. But newshounds had scented blood and for the umpteenth time since Mr Perot re-entered the presidential race four weeks ago, his contempt for the fourth estate boiled over. 'I don't have to prove anything to you people,' he exploded at one point. 'You just tweedle dee and tweedle dum as you wish, it's your business.'

Irrelevant it may be, but the episode could well prove fatal for the credibility of his revived candidacy. Mr Perot's snappy performance in the three presidential debates, followed by a media blitz, of which America has never seen the like, made him a factor with which the main party candidates have been struggling to come to grips. So far, Governor Clinton and President Bush have handled him with kid gloves, for fear that too frontal an attack would merely drive voters weary of 'politics-as- usual' into his arms, only reinforcing a trend they are trying to prevent. Mr Perot has benefited from a virtual free ride.

But these latest sensations can only rekindle the old doubts, that he is a man obsessed by conspiracies and is temperamentally unfit to enter the White House. That plainly is the hope of the Democrat, who has suffered most from the Perot renaisssance. 'Strange' was the adjective Mr Clinton carefully chose yesterday, to describe the tales of buggings, assassination attempts, faked computer photographs and the like pouring out of Dallas.

But more neutral observers of the proceedings also reckon that the 'dirty tricks' distraction now makes it more likely that the 'wasted vote' argument on which earlier independent presidential campaigns have invariably foundered, will again emerge to destroy Mr Perot as well. This time, however, there is one wild card: Mr Perot's money.

By most calculations, the Texan's level of support of about 20 per cent is unlikely to greatly affect the final result. Should it rise to 25 per cent or beyond, however, all bets will be off. And if that does happen, the colossally expensive television blitz now in progress will primarily have been responsible.

Night after night, one or other network carries a primetime 'info-mercial' selling one or other aspect of the Perot package: there have been six so far, dealing with his views of the country's problems, next, his solution to the above, then - on three separate occasions - a presentation of his family, as well as glowing testimony from individuals whom the billionaire has gone out of his way to help.

Last night, ABC was the fortunate beneficiary of the Perot largesse, airing a full hour 'info- mercial' on what campaign staff bill as 'The Ross Perot nobody knows'. The cost is a cool dollars 940,000 ( pounds 584,000). And thus it will continue, right up to the end of the campaign. 'On election eve, I'll be on all three networks talking to you,' he told supporters at the weekend. But after the latest events, fewer may be disposed to listen.