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Floridians Like Perot’s Message, Uncertain About Messenger

March 30, 1996

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) _ Ross Perot was talking in a steamy high school gymnasium in that nasal Texas twang, reciting the history of taxes, the evils of Washington politics and the many changes his Reform Party would make if it got control of the White House.

``The majority wants a third political party,″ Perot said. ``It can be the majority party, no ifs, ands or buts.″

But while many in the crowd liked Perot’s message Friday, they had lingering doubts about the messenger. They were especially skeptical about his repeated claim that he isn’t running for president.

``I think he’s insulting our intelligence when he says he’s not running as the Reform candidate,″ complained Claude Carter, a Naples businessman. ``Who else could possibly run?″

In the last couple of weeks, Perot has hinted he will run for president, but only if his new Reform Party asks him. And Tuesday, he launched a cross-country speechmaking tour in Texas, Pennsylvania and then through the Florida cities of Tallahassee, Tampa and Naples to drum up support.

From the back of the gym, which wasn’t air-conditioned, Sylvia Reetz watched Perot wade through the intricacies of the federal deficit over a barely adequate sound system.

``He’s getting too numbery,″ she said, ``but must of us do want a third party.″

She and her husband, who recently lost his job and health benefits after working 36 years at the same large company, sweated out the whole speech, as did many in the group, which was almost all white and included many retirees.

Mrs. Reetz says she’s a pro-choice, registered Republican who voted for President Clinton in 1992 and ``will not vote for Bob Dole this year because I’m looking for something new.″

But she said many have doubts about Perot’s intentions.

``That little vacillation in 1992 turned people off,″ she said. ``If he got out there and did his homework, he would do pretty well. But he has to get off the pot.″

After Perot’s speech to students in Tallahassee on Thursday night, Florida State University political science major Geoffrey Bowles raised similar concerns.

``I agreed with everything he said, but what is he going to do about it?″ Bowles asked.

Perot, now 64, got 19 percent of the vote nationally and a similar total in Florida in 1992, despite his brief vacillation. He drew a million votes in Florida.

Recent polls have shown him with core support as high as the mid teens, even without a formal announcement.

But in a recent Mason-Dixon Florida poll of likely voters, more than half had an unfavorable opinion of Perot.

Mason-Dixon pollster Bob Joffee of Miami was skeptical about prospects for Perot, the sequel.

``It’s a rerun of a show that was never that popular in the first place,″ Joffee said, ``and it’s very unrealistic to expect the ratings to be that high this time.″

Perot’s new Reform Party is on the ballot in seven states and in some states, such as Texas and Florida, Perot supporters are working to put his name on the petition as a ``stand-in.″

Despite similar efforts across the country, Perot has not made clear whether he will be a candidate.

The drawing power of a Perot candidacy is a big question in a battleground state like Florida, where Clinton almost beat President Bush in a three-way race in 1992.

Florida Democrats are salivating at the prospect of a Perot candidacy.

``We should be paying for his trip through Florida,″ said state Democratic Party Vice Chairman Jon Ausman. ``He draws from both parties, but disproportionately from the Republicans.″

State Republicans complain Perot could complicate things in a state the GOP traditionally carries in presidential races.

Cheryl Kraus, a 31-year-old lawyer and president of the Collier County Young Republicans, attended the Naples speech to decide which candidate Perot would hurt the most in 1996.

She decided Perot will be a ``wild card″ who draws from Republicans, but will spend millions of dollars again, attacking the incumbent _ this time a Democrat.

She didn’t buy his claims that he’s not a candidate.

``It’s part of his act,″ she said. ``I don’t think they’d be out getting him on the ballot everywhere if he weren’t a candidate.″

During his speeches, Perot makes fun of the ``show business″ of Washington politics and particularly President Clinton’s State of the Union address.

In Naples, he played the showman himself by breaking into song, reminiscent of the ditties by the late comedian George Burns.

``There’s no business like show business,″ Perot sang to a bemused crowd, ``like no business I know.″

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