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Waiting for Perot? Stay Tuned

IMMEDIATELY after the Democratic National Convention and Ross Perot's decision not to formally enter the 1992 presidential election, I speculated that Mr. Perot might only be taking a summer vacation from campaigning. Six weeks later, it's probable that Perot will re-enter the race sometime before the end of September - if the conditions are right.

Perot's pullout from the presidential campaign for the long, hot summer made sense. He couldn't possibly compete with the Democrats or Republicans for media attention during their respective conventions. Moreover, most of the coverage Perot was receiving from early June to mid-July wasn't exactly, shall we say, flattering. In truth it was downright nasty and destructive to his campaign. Facing a summer with a choice between no press or bad press, Perot stepped out of the race, but only temporarily.

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Were Perot a member of a disciplined political party he could never have taken a summer vacation and remained the nominee. If Perot was like every other candidate who needed to spend the summer raising money, a summer vacation would have meant the end of the fall campaign before it even started. But Perot has no party to placate and he doesn't really need to raise money in order to run a first-class presidential campaign.

Since the momentous announcement on July 16, Perot has become the non-candidate candidate for president. Though given ample opportunities by Larry King, Barbara Walters, and most recently Dan Rather to end speculation about a possible return to the campaign, Perot remains firmly equivocal.

Instead of retiring to the life of a billionaire, he has kept hope and the campaign alive for millions of Americans. Volunteers have been actively encouraged to continue efforts to place Perot's name on the ballot in as many states as possible; many campaign offices around the nation remain open; and Perot has released his plan for what ails the American economy and published a little book, "United We Stand," outlining his vision for the country. To assure that his name will appear on the November ballot

in California, Perot sent California's secretary of state a letter in late August stating that he is a candidate.

These are not the actions of a man content with lounging on his veranda and playing with the grandbabies. Instead, they are the actions of a person waiting for the right reason and the opportune moment to return to the maelstrom of the presidential election.

We already know what the reason or reasons will be. Perot could make any or all of the following claims as a pretext for a comeback: "The Democratic Party is not as revitalized as I thought during their convention"; "Both parties have stopped addressing `our issues,' the issues effecting most ordinary Americans"; "With anywhere from 100 to 150 new members of the House of Representatives, my chances of winning are better than I thought back in July."

Basically, Perot can use any reason he wants to get back in the race. But he must make it clear to former supporters that he's in it to stay this time, and he must reinforce the good reasons he had for dropping out of the campaign earlier.

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NOW, what will serve as a trigger for Perot's comeback? The trigger will be a change in the percentage of undecided voters. Currently Clinton unexpectedly leads Bush, with roughly 10 percent of the public undecided. As a matter of strategy, Perot will re-enter the campaign when the percentage of undecided voters approaches 20-25 percent - a large enough potential base from which to launch a serious campaign.

If past elections are any guide, the number of undecided voters has risen within a few weeks after the last party convention of the summer. The question for Perot is: Will the percentage of undecided voters rise enough and with adequate time left to make a comeback worthwhile?

Ordinarily, the answer would probably be "no." But this is no ordinary campaign. The electorate is highly volatile, as we saw in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention. They don't really prefer either candidate. The parties seem to be playing the "blame game" instead of truly debating plans for economic recovery, and neither candidate is really addressing the deficit - the cornerstone of Perot's campaign.

All of this works to Perot's advantage. The political and economic conditions responsible for Perot's popularity last spring have basically not changed. Indeed, as Clinton and Bush continue to bludgeon each other week after week, a growing percentage of the American voters is likely to pull away from both parties in disgust, reopening the door for Perot.

This transformation of public opinion could easily take place in the next week or two. If you've been waiting for Perot, you may not have to wait much longer. Watch for a rise in undecided voters and expect to see Perot back.

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