A FEISTY Ross Perot delighted his followers but won no debating points by looking mean-spirited at times while sparring with Vice President Al Gore Jr., who kept his cool in the recent debate. Who won? Some polls gave Mr. Gore the edge. But no one knows if this TV confrontation has had any effect on the NAFTA vote.
But Mr. Perot, who might well have been forgotten by now, is still a political force of the highest voltage. Being singled out by the president as an adversary who needed to be confronted was a clear admission of the Texan's clout.
His entry was probably the principal factor in President Bush's 1992 defeat. And his presence pushed President Clinton's victory margin down to a point that left the winner with no boasting rights. Forty-three percent is more like an admission of weakness.
What has Perot won of substance? For one thing, he became in 1992 and remains today the spearhead for change in this country. He prodded Mr. Clinton into assuming that role for himself in the campaign and since.
On the North American Free Trade Agreement, the president seems to be going beyond Perot in his drive for change. While Perot sees dislocation and joblessness for the American worker in NAFTA, the president sees just the opposite. But he fears that Perot will beat him on this issue.
These days it probably is more accurate to say that Perot is more the leader of what might be called the ``agin'' movement than simply someone who rallies those people to his side who want a more efficient and effective government.
The ``agin'' people are everywhere. I often hear people who call themselves Democrats or Republicans who say, plaintively, something like this: ``Why can't I find a candidate I really like? Why must I always end up voting against someone?'' This complaint was particularly evident during the last presidential campaign. People voted against the raising of taxes in New Jersey, against rising crime in New York City, and against Democratic rule (Sen. Charles Robb and Gov. Douglas Wilder) in Virginia.
And if you feel really upset over politicians and government you always have Perot to fall back on.
He may not like to be branded as an ``aginer.'' But he is one. It seems that he doesn't think that anyone can play this government game - except himself, even though he's never had the opportunity yet to play a single down.
There's even a question whether Perot really has his heart set on holding down an important role inside government.
Who knows what Perot really has in mind? One thing is clear: He remains a powerful force. Indeed, he could shape the outcome of the 1996 presidential race. My impression is that he is already running.