US Presidential Elections: Perot's rise rattles Democrats

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IS THE US presidential race really all over? Might the polls in the US be as misleading 10 days from election day as they were in Britain in April? Could Ross Perot yet defy the massed ranks of punditry by eating into the softer layers of Bill Clinton's support?

A wobbly feeling has come over some Democratic campaigners in the last couple of days as they watch the Texan billionaire's poll score climb back into the high teens. Having squeezed all he can possibly squeeze from President George Bush's base, they fear that a resurgent and newly plausible Mr Perot might soon start to steal the ABB - Anyone But Bush - part of Mr Clinton's vote.

If so, the winning line in a three- man race could be moved, in percentage terms, from the high forties to the low forties, giving President Bush a chance to win after all or even opening the doors for a President Perot.

So far, Mr Perot's rise following his feisty performance in Monday's final debate, has been mostly at the expense of the President. A Wall Street Journal poll, published today, puts the score, with a three- point margin of error, at 47 per cent for Mr Clinton, 28 per cent for Mr Bush and 19 per cent for Mr Perot. This is the Texan billionaire's highest mark since he dropped out of the race in July. It is disastrously low figure for an incumbent Republican President. The daily CNN-USA Today poll looks a little better for Mr Bush: 44-32-17.

Students of opinion polls say it is unlikely that the polls are completely wrong. They present a reasonably accurate, but unfocused, snapshot of opinion at the moment that the questions are asked. But they believe the polls fail to test how committed the support for each candidate is. There is evidence, from the small-print, follow-up questions, that many Clinton supporters - up to a third - remain uneasy with their choice.

'If the polls are off, and I believe they are, it's not because there is some chunk of the electorate which is lying to pollsters or not being reached,' said John Barry, Associate Director of the Roper Centre for Public Opinion Research. 'It is because the polls fail to tell you how much of Clinton's support is provisional, weak- hearted and capable of changing its mind.'

According to surveys of past elections, about 20 per cent of Americans make their final decision in the 24 hours before they vote. The softness of Clinton's support might not be important in a traditional, two-horse race. Half the electorate now says that it will definitely not vote for President Bush. But, in a three-horse race, including an independent candidate willing to spend dollars 60m ( pounds 37m) of his own cash, it becomes a 'worrisome' factor, a senior Democratic strategist admits. 'If Perot climbs above 20 per cent, all the arithmetic gets scrambled.'

Most Clinton campaigners though wary of the Texan's steady climb, remain confident that the Democrat will retain a comfortable lead until Tuesday week. 'The state-by-state numbers are holding up well,' said Mark Bohannon, head of the Democrats' Victory 92 Polling Group. 'Perot is getting his die-hards and the protest vote, the people . . . who want to dissociate themselves from both Clinton and Bush. He has yet to cut into those who want to vote for someone they seriously believe can be president.'

An investigation into the State Department's handling of Bill Clinton's passport files was expanded yesterday after new disclosures that officials also searched his mother's files, Reuter reports.

(Photograph omitted)