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DON’T WRITE OFF PEROT YET - HE LIKES TO ROCK THE BOAT

SHARE DON’T WRITE OFF PEROT YET - HE LIKES TO ROCK THE BOAT

Conventional wisdom holds that it does not matter whether Ross Perot or Dick Lamm wins the Reform Party nomination, since neither would be a factor in the November election.

The pundits contend that the electorate's desire for a third party has fizzled, since the major parties have addressed many of Perot's key issues - welfare reform and the need to streamline government, for example - from the 1992 campaign.The Reform Party, however, is not doomed to a minor role. An Aug. 1 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 16 percent of those questioned support Perot, his highest rating in months. Moreover, although President Clinton, at 44 percent, has a 10-point lead over Bob Dole, the survey revealed that support for both candidates is soft.

I have recently spoken with the Reform Party's top strategists, who have a plan that could rattle the 1996 race. In the party's scenario, Dole will get a temporary boost from the Republican convention next week, but Clinton will regain his momentum after the Democratic convention in Chicago and hold a double-digit lead by Labor Day.

Meanwhile Perot, who will undoubtedly defeat Lamm for the Reform Party nomination, will try to stay out of the news except for brief appearances at the party convention, beginning on Aug. 11. Remember that in 1992, Perot ran essentially a one-month campaign. He and his advisers like to spend his money and deliver his message at saturation levels over a short period, believing that most voters do not make up their minds until the final weeks.

The next phase of the Reform strategy is the Perot buildup. The party leaders remember that after Perot withdrew in July 1992, he plummeted in the polls, reaching a nadir of 2 percent on Sept. 10.

But once he re-entered in October, spending millions on info-mercials and doing well in the debates, his support increased rapidly. He finished with 19 percent of the vote.

Things look even better now. Most third-party candidates fizzle the second time around, yet Perot is pulling numbers in the mid-teens without having spent a dollar.

Here is the Reform strategists' dream scenario. By late September, Dole still trails the president by double digits, and Perot is within single-digit striking distance of Dole. The pundits start asking whether Dole will finish third in November. This gives Perot status as a genuine contender, just as he is poised to flood the airwaves with his chart-a-minute presentations.

Is this scenario possible? Not if the Republicans have their way. One GOP strategist told me they are planning to "hammer him" with negative ads soon after he gets the Reform nomination. Some Republican advisers want Dole to introduce his running mate on Aug. 10 to ensure that the Reform convention gets only minor news coverage.

There is also, of course, Perot's predilection for imploding. In 1992, voters judged him paranoid and quirky when he insisted that Republicans threatened to sabotage his daughter's wedding.

One thing is clear. It is far too early to write off the Texas billionaire. Granted, he is not going to win in November. But he will force the candidates to focus on issues that they have waffled on, such as deficit reduction and campaign finance reform. Given Dole's mediocrity as a candidate and the shallowness of Clinton's support, Perot will undoubtedly make both parties uneasy.