WASHINGTON — Four months after its unlikely birth on a TV call-in show, Ross Perot's all-but-announced presidential candidacy is suddenly hinging on a central area of inquiry: Does the can-do billionaire have a disturbing impulse to go too far?
Does the blustery Texan's country charm conceal a harsh, inflexible side? Has he sometimes played too rough and ruthlessly with those who opposed him in business and public life? Most of all, does he have such a taste for snooping and conspiracy that he cannot be entrusted with the federal government's vast investigative and law enforcement apparatus?
Such questions, coming into focus as details emerge about Perot's record as a businessman and sometime-participant in public controversies, have brought him to a turning point that could decide the fate of his extraordinary bid for the presidency.
If doubts crystallize about whether he would use the enormous powers of the Oval Office judiciously, his campaign could falter and fade. If, on the other hand, voters conclude that Perot's past actions reflect strength and determination but not menace, then he could emerge stronger than ever.
"There seems to be a mean side, a gut-fighter aspect to him, coming into view," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "The voters may buy it, they may reject it--but Perot's going to have to deal with it. The American people, they don't have much tolerance for that kind of stuff."
White House aides, hoping to fan the sparks of doubt, call Perot a "monster." The challenger, forced to defend himself for the first time in the campaign, accuses the Republicans of Nazi-style smear tactics.
"This isn't my personality . . . I'm not running around like Sherlock Holmes trying to do anything," he said at a press conference Wednesday. "The Republican dirty tricks committee has been putting this together for weeks."
Beyond the partisan rhetoric on both sides, what does the record show about how Perot handles power? The answer is necessarily incomplete because much remains to be learned about the hundreds of ventures in which the 62-year old Texan has been involved.
The Perot organization, meanwhile, did not respond to written questions sent June 17 on this story. James Squires, Perot's press secretary, did not return telephone calls.
Nonetheless, a substantial amount of information has become known about how Perot uses power when pursuing his goals or defending himself against what he sees as threats.
The simple self-portrait that Perot presents is glowing: The son of a Texarkana cotton-broker who built a company and created an industry with a computer-services concern called Electronic Data Systems Inc.
He became a hero to many Americans in Christmas, 1969, when he tried unsuccessfully to fly gifts, food and medicine to American prisoners-of-war in Vietnam; wider fame came 10 years later when he organized a commando-style raid on revolutionary Tehran to free two jailed employees.
But sprinkled throughout his career are deeds that flatter him less. And while Perot has been forceful in rebutting some of the charges that have recently surfaced, critics see a pattern that runs through many of his undertakings.
Here are the major elements in Perot's life that have become the center of controversy:
POW/MIA probes: Perot crusaded in 1986 and 1987 to find out if any American soldiers declared missing in action during the Vietnam War remained alive in Southeast Asia as prisoners. He interviewed sources, reviewed documents--and concluded Administration officials were covering up their knowledge of MIAs. Some were inept, he came to believe, and possibly corrupt.
Recent admissions by government officials show that Perot was right in concluding that, during the war's final phase, the Defense Department and the White House were less than candid with the public and concealed evidence suggesting that some prisoners were left behind.
What has stirred concern about Perot's conduct, however, is his pursuit of one government official--Richard L. Armitage, the Reagan Administration's point man on the POW-MIA issue.
Perot tried to get him fired, and at one point passed on a thick folder of allegations about him to the FBI. The papers accused Armitage and others of involvement in drug-dealing, arms trafficking and money laundering--charges that have gone nowhere and have been vigorously denied by Armitage, who is now the Bush Administration's coordinator of aid to the former Soviet republics.
Perot insists, as he has when called upon to explain his actions in other matters, that he acted only after another person approached him. James Badey, a retired Arlington, Va., plainclothes police officer "wanted to see me" and delivered the file, Perot says.
But Badey tells a different version. "Perot called me," he says.