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Amateur Hour Is Over For Perot


Washington Outlook

AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER FOR PEROT

For nearly four months, he was the phenom of the new season, an appealing newcomer who wowed the fickle fans. But Ross Perot, springtime slugger, is battling a summer slump. After a dizzying rise to the top of the Presidential field, Perot's image as a can-do outsider has been damaged by some brushback pitches thrown at him by Bush campaign operatives--and tarnished by a few clubhouse mishaps.

The assaults by the Bushies, especially reports that the Dallas billionaire routinely spied on employees, political figures, and others, have put Perot on the defensive for the first time. Now, the still-undeclared candidate faces a critical time as he tries to regain control of the agenda. But before he can move effectively against political enemies, he must deal with dissension among friends.

PRO TOUR. After a lightning ascent, Perot's swelling Dallas political operation is suffering growing pains. The campaign's attempt to combine its huge volunteer organization with a new staff of political pros has set off grumbling among the amateurs. A few spats have gotten nasty. An ex-volunteer in Oklahoma says he was labeled a "security risk." Perot's former Illinois chairman, fired on his birthday, claims he was falsely described as a convicted felon. The ousted head of Perot's District of Columbia operation says she was axed because she is white.

Despite the fervor of Perot's million-plus volunteers, analysts say it was inevitable that he would need some experienced operatives to harness their raw energy. Still, it has taken longer than expected for the bipartisan brain trust to sort things out. "When you bring in lots of new people, everyone has to stir the pot with their own spoon," says Democratic consultant Wendy Sherman. "That takes time." Perot's campaign chairman, Thomas W. Luce III, promises that volunteers will run registration drives and other grass-roots politicking--with some guidance from the pros. "The structure doesn't change," Luce insists. "The volunteers are going to be the essence of the campaign."

But professionalization has become an issue among some backers, who see the Texan's insurgency as his political raison d'tre. "If he runs a traditional campaign, he totally loses his point," says Clifford Arnebeck, a 1990 Ohio gop congressional candidate who supports Perot. "If he spends $50 million to hire the top-gun pr firms to run a manipulative ad campaign, how is he different than the others?" Perot insiders are sensitive to those concerns. One adviser says the pros are there simply "to give guidance" to volunteers. Notes one: "This is supposed to be a no-hack campaign, remember?"

STOCK FLAK. The Perot campaign's struggles have already delayed a formal declaration of candidacy from the target of late June. Campaign co-chairman Edward J. Rollins has promised an announcement by the end of July, but Luce says the date depends on progress in remaining ballot-petition drives. "We don't have a schedule yet," he admits.

On the stump, Perot's penchant for offhand remarks continues to cause trouble. Most recently, he has caught flak for suggesting that Citicorp, whose stock he has sold short, might be insolvent. Some advisers, hoping to get back on the offensive, are pushing for a big tv ad blitz. "Things have been going so well, maybe he doesn't realize that the people giveth and the people taketh away," says one adviser. From now until late August, the Democratic and Republican conventions will shift some of the spotlight from Perot. The way things are going in Dallas right now, that may be a break for a candidate who's still trying to prove he can play in the big time.Richard S. Dunham EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM


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