DALLAS — Ross Perot, continuing to astound and confound the American political system, on Thursday formally declared that he will be a candidate for the presidency after all.
Saying that he is responding to the will of the people, the Texas billionaire said that he plans to run an abbreviated and unconventional campaign focused solely on what he called "the issues that concern the American people."
He said he feels compelled to run because the two major candidates have failed to face up to the country's current economic and political problems.
Perot had said last July that he would not be an independent candidate for the White House because he had concluded that he could not win and that his presence would be disruptive.
In a raucous and at times hostile press conference in a North Dallas hotel meeting room, Perot ducked most specific questions on his controversial plan for economic revival, which he issued in book form last month. Instead, he doled out large portions of his standard stump speech, heavily laced with patriotic homilies and attacks on the media.
More than 200 press representatives were present to witness the hurling of Perot's latest political grenade. The room was also packed with cheering and sobbing Perot supporters who had come to witness the revival of their hero.
Perot announced that he was joining the campaign in an 18-minute speech, which he read from a prepared text. He was flanked on the stage by his wife, Margot; his vice presidential candidate, retired Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale and his wife, Sybil; his sister, Bette; and three of his five children: Nancy, Carolyn and Ross Jr.
He left the stage immediately after his remarks, refusing to answer a single question and leaving the podium to Orson Swindle, executive director of the Perot volunteer organization, now known as United We Stand, America.
Reporters demanded to know when Perot would begin answering questions and defining the purpose of his candidacy. After 10 minutes of increasingly angry questioning, Perot returned to the podium, explaining that he left because he "wanted to get my family safely out of here."
Perot's political rebirth, which was preceded by two weeks of broad hints that he was preparing just such a move, changes the dynamic of the political campaign in ways that no one can predict.
With less than five weeks remaining until Election Day, Perot's presence on the 50 state ballots holds the potential to shift key states to or from President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Although recent polls show Perot winning barely 10% support, he could upend the electoral map. A national tracking poll by Cable News Network and USA Today released Thursday gave Perot 7%, Clinton 52% and Bush 35%.
Clinton, in Milwaukee, reacted matter-of-factly to the development but with a gentle poke at Perot's earlier dalliance.
"My reaction is that I got into this race and I stayed in this race through thick and thin because I believed that we couldn't afford four more years of George Bush and trickle-down economics, because I believe we need an investment strategy to put the American people back to work. My plan is the best plan to put the people back to work," the Democratic nominee said in an impromptu statement in the Hyatt Regency lobby.
He vacillated when asked whether Perot's entrance would hurt his own campaign. "Not if I do a good job. It could. But if I do a good job and the people who are supporting me stay and we keep getting the ideas out--we've clearly got the best plan."
Minutes later, outside the hotel, Clinton added: "I think we're going to win this campaign."
Bush's White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, appeared unruffled, and, in fact, Bush aides have been saying all week that they would welcome Perot's candidacy as a way to shake up the lock that Clinton appears to have on the lead. "He is on the ballot in all 50 states," Fitzwater said. "Mr. Perot has a strong corps of supporters across the country, and he deserves to have an opportunity to run. We will continue to press our campaign for economic growth and security."
Perot is thought to dislike Bush, but he denied Thursday that he was joining the campaign to hurt the President's reelection chances.
"Absolutely not. That's press myth number 615," he said. "Absolutely not. Absolutely not."
He noted that Bush and his aides have called him "everything from 'monster' to 'crazy,' " but said he was not engaged in a vendetta against the incumbent.
"I wouldn't spend 10 minutes because of personal dislike," Perot said. "I certainly wouldn't spend the money I'm having to spend on this" solely to defeat Bush.