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Muddying the voters' choice

Fuller Warren, one of Florida's more colorful governors, was once asked how he would define a political draft.

"Three post cards from Blountstown," he replied.

Ross Perot has done substantially better than that.

But he paid for his own post cards.

Standing before the cameras Thursday, Perot tried to act the role of someone whose "volunteers" had virtually dragooned him into running for president.

It was Perot money that paid professional canvassers to get him on the ballot in New York. It was Perot money that ran United We Stand _ which now answers its phones "Perot for President" _ and which paid at least eight of the state coordinators. When real volunteers began objecting that Perot had hand-picked some of the coordinators, United We Stand's executive director, Orson Swindle, sent a letter commanding them to "accept the appointed leadership."

Perot's money paid for an 800 number for people to call to encourage _ but not discourage _ his formal candidacy. But for the money, at least $6-million of it, that he spent after declining to run, the campaign would have fizzled when he did. A New York Times headline said it succinctly: "Grass-Roots Drive Shows Hand of Oz." This paper's headline, "Perot heeds backers' call . . ." could as fairly have said, "Perot heeds backers' echo . . ."

All this may be beside the point as to whether Perot has constructive ideas _ and he does _ on issues George Bush and Bill Clinton are ducking. But it is of the same cloth as Bush's dissembling on Iran-Contra and Clinton's selective recollections of how he avoided selective service. The issue is candor. Most presidential candidates are at least candid enough to admit they want the job. What compels Perot to pretend he doesn't? What is he trying to deny? Does he protest a little too much when he paints other politicians as "ego-driven, power-hungry people"?

Why shouldn't he have an ego? No one starts an innovative business on a shoestring or assigns himself the task of shaking up the world's largest corporation without enormous reserves of self-confidence. It is not inherently sinister. Neither is power. When they become dangerous is when ego drives people to abuse power. Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler were both supremely self-confident people who openly courted power; but for the one, civilization might have been destroyed by the other.

Perot's issues are good issues. What is troubling about him _ and what his pretense of being drafted back into the race obviously attempts to deny _ is the short fuse that starts sputtering whenever someone treats him with insufficient deference. He's in his element at love-ins like Larry King Live, where it would never occur to King to ask Perot about the $16-million he has spent, but after Katie Couric and Lisa Myers had surprised him with tough questions on the NBC Today show he complained about women reporters "trying to prove their manhood." And when he said, "I will not spend one minute answering questions that are not directly relevant to the issues that concern the American people," he was declaring his intention to stonewall any question he chooses not to answer.

Journalists can be relentless, rowdy and rude, shallow, sycophantic and stupid. They can waste time following rabbit trails, such as whether Perot hired investigators to check on his "volunteers," at the expense of such threshold issues as the economy and the deficit. Yet they are indispensable to the trial by combat that helps American voters decide which candidates deserve their trust. Perot may think he can buy that trust, but the truth is that he must earn it. Perot's "no go" decision last July left many thinking he had simply wilted in the heat of the kitchen. His staged re-entry gives rise to suspicion that it was planned all along. Why else did he continue to spend money if not to preserve that option?

There is no chance he can be elected now, and most observers discount his prospects of carrying even a single state. But watch where he runs hardest and spends the most: It will tell whether his aim is only to be heard or to hurt. Suppose Perot won just one state _ say Texas _ and as a result neither Bush nor Clinton had an electoral college majority? Then suppose he told them, "My chosen electors will vote as I say. Which of you will do as I say?"

Perot isn't going to be president. Better he should spend his money subsidizing the Concord Coalition, recently founded by Warren Rudman, Paul Tsongas and former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson, that proposes to keep public attention on the economy and the deficit. At this late date, all he can do is muddy the voters' choice between the viable candidates.

Those who do not want Bush re-elected should vote for Clinton. Those who do not want Clinton to be president should vote for Bush. Those who could not vote for either on a bet might as well vote for Perot. But let them keep in mind how this egotistical and brittle man might use their proxies if the election is not settled on Nov. 3.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.