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The Perot wild card still bears watching

Super-salesman Ross Perot got his foot in the door in Sunday night's presidential debate. Now we will see if he can complete the sale to voters weary of President Bush and still skeptical of Bill Clinton.

There's a sure sign that will tell you if Perot is succeeding. If you hear Clinton or one of his spokesmen warn that a vote for Perot is really a vote to keep Bush in office, you will know that this unique 1992 election campaign has taken yet another unexpected turn.

It's not at that point yet. Indeed, with Bush trailing Clinton by double digits in most polls, it would appear that the president is more vulnerable to a late Perot surge than Clinton. But when the vagaries of Electoral College winner-take-all projections on a state-by-state basis are thrown in, a spurt for Perot would make what now appears to be a near-certain Clinton victory less of a sure thing.

Overnight viewer polls after the St. Louis debate put Perot in the mid-teens, up from the high single digits last week. If his support should move past the 20 percent mark in national polls, he would clearly be in a position to affect the outcome in some states _ and maybe, the nation.

There are some short-term circumstances that could push Perot forward. He clearly won voters' interest on Sunday night, so the audience for his paid ads this week will be even greater than last week.

Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate is the first time most of the country will meet retired Adm. James Stockdale, the Vietnam prisoner-of-war hero who is Perot's running-mate. It is distinctly possible that the brainy, selfless and distinctly unegotistical Stockdale will make both Vice President Quayle and Sen. Albert Gore Jr., the Democrats' No. 2 man, seem like callow youths.

On Thursday, when the presidential candidates return to action in Richmond, Va., they will be questioned by members of an audience of uncommitted voters. Judging from what I saw Sunday night, when the Washington Post assembled a similar group of 11 uncommitteds in Cleveland to watch the first debate, these are the very people most likely to be sympathetic to Perot.

What came across to the Clevelanders was the combination of irreverent humor, prickly independence and the promise of strong action that Perot projected.

Their descriptions of him included "caring," "entertaining" and "sincere." But what set him apart from the two major-party nominees was their sense that Perot would "face the issues" as a "results-oriented" executive.

Perot's appeal was heightened by the contrast to the impression left by Bush and Clinton. The president was remarkably relaxed on stage, given the fragility of his campaign. But there was also a sense of passivity _ oddly out of touch with the concerns these voters expressed about the state of the economy and their family's welfare. One voter in Cleveland said that if Bush told her one more time that things were not as bad as they seemed, "I thought I'd have to pull out my own hair." And the Bush message was as diffuse and unfocused as it has seemed since he first went into New Hampshire last winter.

As for Clinton, he was once again the unwitting victim of his own articulateness. Clinton is so good with words, so polished in his utterance, so practiced in his delivery, that many cannot believe he's for real. "It's too like a movie," one voter said. And from many lips came the one-word description that spells danger in 1992: "Politician."

So what is one to make of this? Bush looks to me like a spent force _ in the campaign and in government. His promise to keep James A. Baker in the White House as economic and domestic policy boss _ reversing a previous statement that Baker would go back to the State Department _ would be significant, if there were to be a second term. But it is also a confession that Bush's own commitment to put domestic concerns uppermost is not convincing.

Clinton is the obvious choice for most of those seeking a change of leadership and of policy. He comes across as knowledgeable on domestic issues. The Bush effort to impugn his character has failed. In a two-way race, Clinton has done almost everything he would need to do to win.

But Perot throws an X factor into the equation. I'm convinced now that if he had not, out of frustration with the press and his professional handlers, thrown over his candidacy last July, he could have made this a genuine three-way race. That impulsive decision to walk away from the race when he first took criticism weighs against him with voters _ as it should.

But just as most of the pundits underestimated Perot's potential impact on the first debate, I suspect they are now underestimating the potential of Perot's grass-roots supporters to spread the gospel of Perot's call for "fair, shared sacrifice."

This one may not be over yet.

Washington Post Writers Group