Hoping to shake up the presidential campaign in its closing days, Bob Dole tried to persuade Ross Perot to quit the race and endorse the GOP ticket. But a Perot aide says the Reform Party candidate "is in the race to stay."
With Dole's blessing, campaign manager Scott Reed traveled to Dallas on Wednesday to make the entreaty, according to several Republican sources in Washington, two senior Dole-Kemp campaign officials among them. The sources spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.Dole repeatedly declined to answer questions on the matter, at one point telling reporters traveling with him in Florida, "You know I have a hearing problem."
Within the Dole campaign, there were deep divisions on the wisdom of the strategy. Some advisers suggested Dole had little choice but to seek a dramatic turn of events, while others said it was a fool's errand that would only encourage Perot to ridicule the Republican candidate.
Word of the entreaty stunned GOP operatives, including party chairman Haley Barbour.
Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman refused to confirm the meeting took place. But she said emphatically: "Mr. Perot has no intention of quitting the race, no intention whatsoever." Perot himself was to address the matter today at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington.
The appeal to Perot was evidence of the frustration within the Dole camp as the campaign entered the final 12 days with Clinton comfortably ahead in national polls and enjoying a similarly lopsided advantage in state-by-state electoral vote counts.
Dole has focused on conservative themes of late in an effort to rally GOP base voters. In Georgia on Wednesday, he promoted his support for balancing the budget and banning flag burning and late-term abortions. But Dole is facing stiff competition from Clinton on traditionally Republican turf. Both candidates were in Florida on Wednesday and were competing for votes in Alabama on Thursday.
And as he tries to shore up his Republican base, Dole also has profound problems with moderate women and others in the middle of the electorate, including independents alienated from both parties who might be inclined to support Perot, even if in protest.
In the view of some Dole advisers, a Perot endorsement could swing several states in Dole's favor, especially in the Mountain West. Texas and Florida are also two traditionally Republican states where Clinton and Dole are running neck-and-neck with Perot garnering roughly 6 percent.
"Any time you can pick up a few points here or there, it's worth the effort," said Florida GOP Sen. Connie Mack.
More significantly, the GOP sources said Dole's last hope was that a dramatic development would throw what for months has been a remarkably stable race into sudden turmoil.
White House aides cast Reed's mission as proof of Dole's desperation, although their eagerness in asking how Perot responded underscored their desire to keep the closing days free of surprises.
Clinton campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart said Dole's poll deficit left him little choice but to "search out votes wherever he can find them." But he said, "We believe that on the issues that are most important to Mr. Perot - the deficit, campaign finance reform - we have a stronger record."