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Ross Perot's bid for the presidency should not be shrugged off.

Though success at the polls is a long shot, Perot's candidacy bears watching. It is Perot's message, not just his money, that counts: His populist "rot at the top" message has deep roots in American political culture. Congressional scandal and the failure of the current national leadership to address pressing national problems strongly reinforce his message.Perot also personifies another profoundly American theme: the rags-to-riches, poor-boy-makes-good story - what Robert Reich has labeled "the triumphant individual."

Like Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan and others who cast themselves as outsiders, Perot is met with skepticism by the establishment. Media commentators dismiss him. Political pros, from party hacks to former presidents, doubt Perot can win, though most agree he could be a spoiler like Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 who denied William Howard Taft a second term and elected Woodrow Wilson.

Some doubt Perot is up to the job, including Texas GOP state chairman Fred Meyer, who says Perot lacks the political experience required of a president.

At a meeting I attended last week in Palm Springs, Calif., former President Gerald Ford noted that Perot recently resigned from the board of directors of troubled General Motors, unable to persuade the other directors to accept his views. "How in the world is he going to persuade Congress, 535 independently elected leaders, most of whom think they ought to be president?"

It is true that business leaders have not been very successful in presidential politics (though many have been successful governors). Herbert Hoover's failed presidency and businessman Wendell Willkie's unsuccessful run against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 come to mind. But there are important differences between business leadership and leadership in government.

First, private sector leaders have control over the decision process. CEOs can usually decide who gets involved, when and under what circumstances. In the public sector, everyone is involved, whenever and however they choose.

Second, in the private sector, performance is easily measured by the reality of the stock price, return on investment or another measurable bottom line. In the public sector, image is often as important as reality. For example, the appearance of impropriety can be as destructive to leadership as the reality of impropriety.

Third, the private sector CEO can hire and fire and downsize when necessary. In the public sector, the CEO is stuck with the bureaucracy, what some have called "the permanent government."

Fourth, in the private sector the CEO's board of directors wants him to succeed. In the public sector at least a plurality (and often a majority) of the CEO's board, the legislative branch, is plotting his defeat.

Fifth, the private sector CEO can govern through the chain of command. The president must govern in large measure through persuasion, what Teddy Roosevelt called "the bully pulpit."

The question: Can Perot make the transition to effective leadership in the public sector? I think it would be a mistake to bet against it.

Perot's public communications skills are superb. More than 1 million calls to Perot since his March 16 interview on the "Larry King Show" and his many subsequent TV interviews indicate he knows how to use the media to arouse the public.

If he runs and wins, the same forces that elect him would likely elect a lot of new faces to Congress - perhaps more than 100. New leadership in Washington could change the system, giving him the support he would need in Washington.

Is this scenario likely? Not at this time.

But if there were a time to beat the odds, it is now.