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Perot's '92 tide ebbed in all directions

Those voters - 20 percent in Florida - are still disaffected, but with various results.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000


Howard Smith, a self-employed window installer from St. Petersburg, voted for Ross Perot eight years ago because he thought the independent candidate would do more for the "common man" than George Bush or Bill Clinton.

This year Smith is not sure whom he will vote for. He is disgusted with politics in general and the candidates for president in particular.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader?

"Nader's not going to get in there, we know that," said Smith, a 55-year-old registered independent.

Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore?

"Bush comes across as not knowing a lot," he said, "and Gore comes across as a pompous a--."

Smith is not alone in his frustration.

Florida voters who combined to give Perot 20 percent of the vote in 1992 and helped fuel the national Reform Party movement are still largely dissatisfied with national politics and are divided among the the presidential candidates, according to interviews with former Perot supporters, state party officials, and independent analysts.

"They're all over the map," said Ernest Bach, a former Largo city commissioner and Perot supporter. "They don't know where to go. They don't know what to do. They're lost, and I think many of them may not even show up at the polls."

As a group, the Perot voters were a powerful force both nationally and in Florida.

The Texas billionaire received 19 percent of the national vote in 1992, just 1 percentage point less than his Florida total, as he campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement, government waste and campaign finance abuses. Perot's inroads enabled Bill Clinton to defeat incumbent George Bush despite winning less than half of the popular vote.

In Florida, Perot won 24 percent of the vote in 1992 in Rep. C.W. Bill Young's south Pinellas district and in Rep. Karen Thurman's North Suncoast district. He won 25 percent of the vote in Rep. Michael Bilirakis' district, which includes part of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Pinellas County delivered more than 101,000 votes to Perot in 1992, more than any other Florida county.

No one, including Perot, has been able to carve out a similar niche in the electorate since then.

Four years ago, Perot won just 9 percent of the vote in Florida as Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years to win the state's electoral votes.

Now, the Reform Party in Florida has undergone a gut-wrenching upheaval just as it has on the national stage as conservative Patrick Buchanan seized control. Both the national and the state chairmen were replaced this year, and police were called to break up the fighting at a Reform Party meeting in February in Nashville, Tenn.

"They were united in their opposition to the status quo, but not in their vision of where to take it," Lance deHaven-Smith, associate director of the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University, said of Perot supporters.

The result of the Reform Party collapse is that Buchanan lags behind Nader in both national and state polls. In a St. Petersburg Times poll conduced by Schroth & Associates this month, Buchanan registered 2 percent and Nader 4 percent. Neither met the requirements to appear in the presidential debates, which conclude tonight in St. Louis.

Because Perot finished with more than 5 percent of the vote in 1996, Buchanan has collected more than $12-million in federal matching money as the Reform Party candidate. But Nader and the Green Party have a better shot this year at meeting the 5 percent requirement to qualify for federal money in the next presidential election.

Nader said last week that he believes he is picking up the majority of Perot voters, particularly those who are still concerned about such issues as government waste and campaign finance reform.

"We're carrying the torch for those voters," he said in Tampa before flying to New York for a rally in Madison Square Garden that drew about 15,000 people.

Paul Petit, a 69-year-old retiree from Ozona who twice voted for Perot, said he will vote for Nader because he is not a traditional politician.

"I don't know much about him," he said, "but I think he has the people's interest at heart. We desperately need something to break this political system that we have."

Nader also has support from Cedar Key's Jack Gargan, who was ousted this year as the party's national chairman. Gargan said he is a registered Republican now but expects to campaign in Florida for Nader.

"He's really far too liberal for my tastes," Gargan said, "but he is an honest man."

He also doesn't buy the argument that supporting Nader is a wasted vote. "You waste a vote if you don't vote your conscience," he said. "Even if Nader doesn't win, boy, you can send a strong message."

Pollsters, political party officials and independent observers say it is difficult to measure with any precision where Perot supporters are landing. Washington-based pollster Rob Schroth said most pollsters do not measure voting trends for Perot supporters anymore because too few voters acknowledge they once voted for him. But he said independent male voters strongly backed Perot, and Bush now holds a lead among those voters.

"They don't feel that there is a Perot-like alternative in the race," Schroth said. "Neither Nader nor Buchanan has excited them."

Predictably, both Gore and Bush supporters believe they have won over a substantial share of the Perot voters.

Good economic times are bringing voters who were concerned with economy in 1992 back to Gore this year, said Gore strategist Karl Koch.

Those are registered independent voters like James and Harriet Cowdery, retirees who live in the Carrollwood area of Tampa. They voted for Perot in 1992 and 1996.

"A lot of good it did," Mrs. Cowdery, 74, said. "We're not happy with Bush, so we're going to take a chance on Gore. And what else is there to do but take a chance?"

The Times' poll indicated Gore led Bush among independent voters in Florida, 38 percent to 30 percent. But Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Monday that he believes Bush has moved ahead among independents, and he estimated that eight out of 10 of those voters backed Perot at one time.

"We've gained more than we've lost," Cardenas said.

But even the GOP chairman acknowledged that Perot voters are difficult to track. Perot voters can be found in both major political parties.

Fen Ellery of St. Petersburg, who was active in Perot's '92 campaign, is a Republican now but attaches no importance to party labels. He and his wife flip a coin to determine how they will register. Both are leaning toward Bush.

"He's the lesser of two evils," said Ellery, who likes the Texas governor's proposal to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts instead of Social Security. "We don't like either candidate."

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