WASHINGTON — The mounting war of words between President Bush and Ross Perot offers a rare look at the powerful arsenal employed by the Bush team to discredit its rivals.
While the President, for the most part, remains silent, both the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee are providing GOP officials across the country with guidelines meant to help coordinate attacks on the Texas billionaire who is expected to run for President as an independent.
And Bush appointees like drug czar Bob Martinez have begun to use taxpayer-funded trips as platforms from which to launch those attacks. Martinez stunned the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Houston on Tuesday by declaring that Perot has "a penchant for skulduggery" and is "not fit to be President."
A senior Bush campaign official insisted in an interview that the offensive is only loosely managed and reflects "nothing sexy or dirty-trickish." Bush advisers vigorously denied Perot's charges that they somehow prompted a series of recent press disclosures about a snooping campaign allegedly waged by the computer magnate.
But a review of the GOP effort makes clear that the Bush team has come to regard the reports as so potentially damaging to Perot that it has deployed a vocal army to exploit them.
The latest salvos were fired Wednesday by senior White House and campaign officials as Perot sought to blame his troubles on Republican dirty tricks. At a formal White House briefing, chief spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said coldly that Perot's zeal to "blame all this on the White House" suggests that he harbors paranoid delusions.
Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, convened a rare on-the-record briefing for reporters at which he poked fun at what he snidely labeled Perot's "simple investigator's budget."
Darman, who acknowledged that he had discussed his planned remarks with campaign officials, said Perot's plan to balance the budget doesn't add up.
From the Washington headquarters of the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee, officials like RNC Chairman Richard N. Bond were reciting what had become the Bush campaign's unofficial line of the day: Perot should "put up or shut up."
And Wednesday's version of a daily "Campaign Briefing," telefaxed by the Bush-Quayle operation to Republican officials around the country, included a compilation of unflattering recent Perot quotes to suggest that "his views have certainly seemed to change."
"Talking points" circulated by the RNC offered specific recommendations of phrases Bush allies should use in attacking Perot. A memorandum from Bond to Republican Party leaders cites "private detectives, surveillance photos and tough tactics" in answering the question: "How does Perot get what he wants?"
In an interview, James Lake, deputy campaign manager for the Bush-Quayle reelection effort, stressed that the campaign itself did not render such specific advice to its surrogates. He said the campaign was "not providing people with directions or information to go out after either of the other two candidates on a regular basis."
He quickly added, however: "We do inform people about the record." For example, the campaign briefing invited its 700 targeted recipients to listen in today on one of a series of conference calls meant to provide Bush-Quayle lieutenants with information that could be used against Bush rivals.
Bush campaign officials steadfastly rejected the idea that such operations represented what Perot has called "Republican dirty tricks."
Whether or not they are handed formal scripts, however, Bush surrogates have adopted a narrow vocabulary to describe Perot since it was first reported that the Texas tycoon had ordered investigations of his employees and rivals. Perot himself said Wednesday that he had done so on only "three or four" occasions in his entire business career. The most favored descriptions include words like "bizarre," "spooky," and "scary."
After Martinez's comments Tuesday, his office issued a two-page press release labeling Perot as "scary." Martinez's spokeswoman, Elaine Crispen, denied that his comments had been directed by the Bush campaign.
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.