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And the believers gathered

The rusted black Jeep parked outside Tampa's Perot for President headquarters appears held together by political stickers. But there will be no body work for a while because the owner plans to "FIX AMERICA FIRST."

That's after persuading Americans to "TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK" by electing "PEROT FOR PRESIDENT," "DEMINICO FOR CONGRESS" and "PROUT FOR COUNTY COMMISSION."

It is 3:30 on the first Thursday in October. A day, if you believe the people inside, that "will change history." In 20 minutes, Ross Perot will appear on the big Magnavox to announce his October surprise.

Despite such proximity to history, the campaign office is almost empty. Since Perot quit in July, most volunteers have given up and gone home.

But not Mary Ellen Erbaugh or Jayne Felton, two middle-aged women who fell for Ross Perot earlier this year and waited patiently for their man to return. Today, they wait in the back of this partitioned office, beyond the American flag and the "8 IS ENOUGH" sign, near the blank piece of paper marked "CLINTON'S MESSAGE."

Erbaugh dips an artist's brush into a tuna can of red paint, then carefully paints the word "VIGILANCE." It is part of what she calls her message of the day, "ETERNAL VIGILANCE IS THE PRICE OF LIBERTY."

Felton lights a cigarette. She is telling Erbaugh that someone told her that Clinton's record wasn't too good.

As she speaks, she exhales a cloud of smoke. For a while, she couldn't light up at headquarters, but then the women who complained all quit the campaign.

That left only the true believers like Erbaugh and Felton and Bob Foster Sr., a stocky, white-haired man who is area coordinator for Perot's United We Stand campaign. A World War II POW who later ran a furniture manufacturing business, Foster has spent about $5,000 of his own money to keep this Kennedy Boulevard office open.

Across the desk is Chuck Hoskinson, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is working on Joe DeMinico's independent campaign for Congress. They say they knew last night that Ross was resurrecting his campaign. In just a few moments they will watch him roll away the stone.

Perot is their man, says Foster, "because he can say in 15 minutes what it takes those other two guys three months to say."

The movement, they say, is about more than getting Perot elected, that's why the DeMinico for Congress campaign and Charles Prout's campaign for County Commission are getting help from the campaign office here.

At 3:45, DeMinico shows up in a western-style hat. He's wearing it in honor of the new presidential candidate from Texarkana. DeMinico, also a career military man who flew more than 100 bombing missions over North Vietnam, doesn't like the term coattails, but he knows Perot will help him get the media attention he can't afford and some votes for his bid to oust Tampa congressman Sam Gibbons.

DeMinico is talking about a "coalition of the middle" when the TV crews show up. At 4, nine Perot supporters gather around the Magnavox. They are surrounded by seven reporters and cameramen.

As Perot and his wife approach the podium, Erbaugh sings out a fanfare "Bum pa da bum pa da bum."

She is jubilant, but when her man says the magic words, Erbaugh chokes up. She pulls a tissue from her pocket as the tears tumble. Not wanting to cry on camera, she quickly retreats to another room to compose herself.

When the show is over, DeMinico, who has been standing with his hands clasped almost prayerfully to his lips, begins to gallop toward the others.

"Let the games begin!" he shouts.

At a desk near the door, a telephone is ringing. Felton leaps up and rushes past DeMinico shouting, "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"

Within minutes, a TV crew has DeMinico on camera.

"The core issue is jobs, jobs, jobs," he says.

In the background of this TV shot sits Jayne Felton. She has a cigarette in her hand and a phone in her ear.

"Hello, United We Stand. . . . Yes, let me get your name and telephone number. . . . It will be a couple of days before we settle down here, but somebody will get in touch with you."

Chuck Hoskinson steps briskly around a partition, a wide smile smeared across his face.

"Stick around everybody!" he says. "We're going live!"

Paul Wilborn is a member of the Times editorial board and is based in Tampa.

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