Perot enters the fray as Clinton strategist predicts a tight race


THE maverick third-party candidate, Mr Ross Perot, relaunched himself yesterday into a political landscape transformed by the success of last week's Republican convention, presaging a tight presidential race in which Mr Perot's swing voters could have a disproportionate effect.

Although most polls still show Mr Clinton with a comfortable lead of 8 to 12 percentage points, the most recent poll to be published by Newsweek today shows the gap down to two or three points, a statistical dead-heat.

"I think it's a tight race," commented Mr Harold Ickes, deputy chief of staff at the White House, and a top Clinton-Gore campaign strategist. "We have our base at 25 or 26 per cent. They have their base at 25 or 26 per cent. And the rest is very, very volatile. It's a suspicious, insecure American public, and we are going through times of enormous social and economic change - and none of us has a silver bullet answer."

Mr Clinton's formidable lead of 20 points before the Republican convention reflected a widespread assumption that Mr Dole (73) had little chance, a perception overturned by the success of the ruthlessly-controlled convention in San Diego last week.

In a tight race, both the left-wing challenge to Mr Clinton in California by the respected consumer advocate, Mr Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party ticket, and the well-funded challenge from Mr Perot assume new importance.

The Texan billionaire predictably and comfortably won the presidential nomination of his own new Reform Party on the weekend, to be greeted by the Newsweek poll yesterday which showed him getting a paltry 3 per cent of the vote. Other polls show him with 7 to 10 per cent of the vote.

The Perot victory, by a two-to-one margin, over the former Governor of Colorado, Mr Dick Lamm, came from an innovative week-long election by phone, fax and Internet, in which barely 50,000 supporters bothered to take part, although over a million ballots had been distributed.

Mr Lamm failed, until the last minute, to get his own ballot and there were widespread complaints at the inefficiency of the Reform Party organisation. Those who logged on to the Internet to vote found the Reform Party homepage with its greeting "Are you SICK and TIRED?"

The latest Democratic TV ad went on the air yesterday. The screen opened with the solemn words, "The Republican Economic Plan", and then we see a clip of Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman, in which he dances down the street tossing out dollar bills. We get 20 seconds of this and then the final words: "The Republican plan. It's not funny."