It was billed as the “unconventional convention.” Ross Perot’s Reform Party was holding the first half of an unusual two-part meeting to nominate a presidential candidate, and its mercurial founder had what sounded like a great idea. The mainstream American parties might waste their time on petty personal attacks, Perot declared, but the public should “demand an end to negative politics and meanspirited name calling.” Too bad, then, that just outside the convention hall in Long Beach, Calif., last week, the rhetoric was already sounding distinctly old-fashioned.
Perot’s challenger, former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, complained bitterly that he was being denied a fair shot at the nomination.
And many of Lamm’s supporters were getting downright personal about the diminutive Texas billionaire. Perot, griped one, is an “arrogant, egotistical little shrimp who just wants attention.”
The last part, at least, is right. The 66year-old Perot certainly wants attention— and is preparing to spend millions of dollars this fall to ensure that voters get his message about balancing the federal budget, breaking the grip of special interests on the American political system and drastically limiting immigration to the United States. After he and Lamm were nominated in Long Beach, the Reform Party’s 1.1 million members voted last week by mail, phone and computer. The results were to be announced at a second meeting in historic Valley Forge, Pa., on Sunday, Aug. 18, with Perot expected to defeat Lamm handily for the leadership of the party he founded, funded and has led since last year.
Four years ago, Perot won 19 per cent of the popular vote—even after dropping out of the race for several weeks. He had a significant impact then, draining votes mainly from Republican George Bush and helping President Bill Clinton to win. But this tj year, Perot and Reform will likely not be as big a factor. Polls put his support at about seven to nine per cent, and most analysts say that voters’ desire for a
third party has diminished. The American economy is in better shape than it was four years ago, and both Republicans and Democrats have cut into Perot’s target audience by taking up the causes that he champions—especially a balanced budget. Those who say they still back the man they call “Ross the Boss” are poorer, lesseducated and more rural than were his supporters in 1992.
Then there is the man himself. He is no longer a fresh face in politics at a time of massive disillusion with traditional parties. American voters have had several years to make up their minds about Perot, and most do not like what they see. By nearly 2 to 1 in a recent opinion poll, voters said they have a negative impression of him. In March, the Pew Research Center in New York City asked voters to state one word to describe Perot. “Rich,” ranked highest, followed by “crazy,” “idiot,” “egotistical,” “nuts,” “money,” and “arrogant.” The first positive response, “intelligent,” ranked number 8. Thomas Mann, director of government studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, told Maclean’s: “The Reform Party cannot become a serious force in our politics as long as Ross Perot is at its head. He is a very strange bird, and that increasingly comes across to people.”
Perot’s quirky, domineering style and penchant for secrecy were on display again during the first instalment of his party’s convention. He first insisted that Reform “isn’t about me,” then suggested that he would not run again and encouraged Lamm to seek the nomination. Once the former Democrat was in the race, though, Perot immediately jumped in as well. And his aides, who run the party, effectively nixed any chance that Lamm might have had of launching a serious challenge by refusing to give him access to Reform’s membership lists, arguing that would amount to an illegal campaign contribution. Lamm was left complaining that “this is not politics as usual—this is worse than politics as usual.”
Still, analysts are careful not to write Perot off entirely so early in the campaign. In 1992, he spent $78 million of his own money to win 19 per cent of the vote. This year, he has done no national advertising so far and will be eligible for $41 million in federal campaign funds, based on his showing four years ago. Gerald Posner, author of a biography called Citizen Perot, says that if Republican Bob Dole continues to trail Clinton badly by late September, Perot’s strategists hope to flood the airwaves with political infomercials and position him as a genuine contender just before the vote. It is a long shot—and the biggest obstacle to seeing it happen may be the unpredictable candidate himself.
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