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Perot's return jumbles race; debates set

The debate chicken that had tormented George Bush on the campaign trail folded its wings last week. Then Ross Perot, stung by chicken charges after he ducked the race in July, returned to presidential politics. And scrambled the race.

The consequences of Perot's decision to stage a monthlong, unconventional mostly-on-television presidential campaign were incalculable. The same could be said for the agreement on a mid-October blizzard of debates.

But that stopped no one in politics, from junkie to professional to pollster, from trying to calculate anyway.

Would Perot draw away enough protest votes to hurt Clinton, the "agent of change," more than Bush?

Could Perot actually win? Or win enough states to throw the election into the House of Representatives? Might he skim enough votes in some states to shift the outcome? Texas? Florida? Other states in the South? California?

Or would the voters brush off a second-time-around Perot as one of those "ego-driven, power-hungry people" that he said he was trying to rid the political system of? The first snap polls suggested so.

If Bush was his target, then why was Clinton saying, in what sounded like candor, that Perot back in the race and on 50 states' ballots "could give the election to Bush if those who want change are equally divided"?

It was as though the campaign was starting fresh, as though a summer's worth of campaigning by Bush and Clinton, Dan Quayle and Al Gore, was yesterday's distant news.

Bush, behind in the polls and stagnantly so, didn't wait for Perot to churn the waters. After rejecting two invitations by a bipartisan commission to debate, Bush dramatically challenged Clinton to four debates, on the four Sunday nights leading up to the election, with two by the vice presidential candidates to boot.

That took care of the chicken. For days, at every campaign stop, Bush could spy a Clinton supporter dressed in feathers, sometimes with a sign: "Read My Beak."

It was clear that the chicken was getting Bush's goat. During a railroad whistle-stop tour in Ohio and Michigan, he chided the chicken, asking if it was an "Oxford" chicken or a "draft" chicken _ references to Clinton's schooling at Oxford and his efforts to avoid military service in Vietnam. The chicken didn't answer the president.

Aides to Bush and Clinton announced plans Saturday for three presidential debates beginning Oct. 11 in St. Louis.

The announcement, capping three days of closed-door negotiations, set a compressed, nine-day timetable for the three presidential encounters and one vice presidential debate.

Each will be 90 minutes long, take place before live audiences and be open to all subjects. A variety of formats will be employed.

The other presidential debates will be Oct. 15 in Richmond, Va., and Oct. 19 in East Lansing, Mich.

The vice presidential debate will be in Atlanta on Oct. 13.

The statement said "the parties have agreed to invite" Perot and running mate James Stockdale to participate. Perot will be there, his spokesman said.

Stockdale is a retired vice admiral whose wife had enlisted Perot's help during the eight years Stockdale was held, and sometimes tortured, as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

It was a mistake, Perot said, to have dropped out in July, when he said he had no chance of winning and did not want to be "disruptive." Clearly he had been stung by Perot volunteers, who felt his withdrawal was cowardly.

"I feel betrayed that he lied to us, the volunteers," said an unreconciled Sue Drew, a former Perot coordinator in California, now supporting Clinton.

Recent polls have shown Perot with about 10 percent support. One published the day he returned to the race gave him 7 percent to Clinton's 52 percent and Bush's 35 percent.

Meantime _ was anyone listening? _ the Democratic and Republican candidates were back at it, and at each other, on the campaign trail. The words got nastier.

Bush, from his Spirit of America whistle-stop train, denounced Clinton as "that Arkansas taxer" and the Democrats in Congress as "these maniacs."

And Clinton, seizing upon an expose broadcast on CBS' 60 Minutes, charged that the Bush administration callously spent tax dollars to help U.S. companies shut domestic plants and move abroad.

"Mr. Bush," said Clinton in hard-pressed Toledo, Ohio, "you sucker-punched us once and we are not going to fall for it again. Go away _ go away."