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Perot's "plain talk' rejuvenates interest

Ross Perot charmed and disarmed in the first presidential debate Sunday night, and his bay area volunteers said they basked in the results Monday morning.

"Our phone has been ringing off the hook since I walked in here at 8:15," said Ralph Winters, Perot's regional coordinator, who works out of an office on Starkey Road in Largo.

Local Perot supporters said they received an increase in phone calls and visitors Monday in response to their candidate's debate performance, which even earned praise for its plain talk from President Bush and challenger Bill Clinton.

"I'm elated with what's happened," said Robert A. Foster Sr., spokesman for Perot in Hillsborough County. "The exposure let other people meet Perot."

Foster said his office on Kennedy Boulevard ran out of yard signs Monday, but is ordering more.

Volunteers say they're hearing from some people who were disillusioned when Perot dropped out of the race in July.

"A lot of the original volunteers are calling in," said volunteer Sheri Harrison, 46, who described herself as "between jobs."

"They're coming home in droves," said Jack Osendott, a 66-year-old truck driver who's taking time off to work for Perot.

The morning was busy at the Largo office, volunteers said, but things were considerably more calm around 2 p.m. Only a few phone calls came in during one 45-minute period, and three people dropped by the office _ one of whom said he just wanted a Perot button.

Angela Cody, 22, of St. Petersburg, came to the Largo office to buy T-shirts. She had not seen the debate yet, but her boyfriend, who videotaped it for her, said Perot was the big winner.

"He thinks Perot is hilarious. We just think he's really funny," Cody said. "He always has a straightforward answer."

Supporters say Perot gained ground Sunday, but that his biggest problem now is the confidence factor. Most news stories about him include a reference to the fact he is given virtually no chance of winning _ which might make people feel they are wasting their vote, supporters said.

"People are saying, "Well, I'd like to vote for him, but I don't think he's going to win.' If all these millions of people who would like to vote for him would vote for him, then he can win," said Naomi Spoeth, Perot's Pasco County coordinator.

Perot's supporters weren't the only ones saying the debate won converts for their candidate.

Clinton's state headquarters in Tampa has received a few calls from new supporters who liked Clinton's debate performance, said spokeswoman Kathy Jurado. Republican Party headquarters in Tampa also logged calls from voters saying they were proud of Bush, said volunteer Mary Smith.

Meanwhile, Perot supporters are waiting to see where the campaign will turn.

"Last night (Bush and Clinton) were deferential to him because it's been billed so much he hasn't had a prayer, and they don't want to alienate his supporters," Winters said. But if his man gains in the polls, he doesn't think the kindness will last.

_ Times correspondent Sandy Youngdale contributed to this report.

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