He's Ready, But Is America ready for PRESIDENT PEROT?

Look out Washington -- look out George Bush and Bill Clinton -- here comes the first revolution in history ever led by a billionaire

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ALL THAT WAS MISSING WAS NORman Rockwell to immortalize the scene for an old Saturday Evening Post cover. The sea of white faces in the crowd at the Texas state Capitol in Austin last week was freckles-fritters-and-fried-chicken America: elderly retirees, earnest young men and women in ROSS FOR BOSS T shirts, and a sprinkling of former Vietnam POWS in black shirts as a reminder of their suffering. As the patriotic pageantry built to a climax, a compact man with jug ears, weather-beaten face and glasses, the sort of fellow who looks like he might belong behind the counter in a small-town hardware store, bounded up to the impromptu stage, and the crowd roared, "Run, Ross, run!"

Not bad for the kickoff rally of an up-from-nowhere independent presidential campaign. Not bad for an almost candidate who says he deplores the hokum and hoopla of professional politics. Not bad for a reluctant dragon whose supporters had just filed petitions containing more than 200,000 signatures -- about four times what he needs to get on the ballot in Texas. The speech, delivered in his trademark East Texas twang, was more sound bite than substance: "If I could wish for one thing for my children, it's to leave the American Dream intact, so they can dream great dreams and have those dreams come true." But the message was unmistakable: look out Washington -- look out George Bush and Bill Clinton -- here comes the first revolution ever led by a billionaire.

Ross Perot, the plutocrat populist poised for the presidency, holds court from the 17th floor of a North Dallas office tower -- a memorabilia-filled aerie (the artistic motif is Rockwell paintings and Frederic Remington sculptures, and Perot is happy to tell with a chuckle what he paid for almost everything) that radiates almost preternatural calm. His desk is clean, save for the week's schedule of media interviews and a list of Perot coordinators in all 50 states. But at a time when Bush and Clinton are racing around the country, giving speeches, honing positions, posing against scenic backdrops, this small man, who loves the sobriquet "Billionaire Boy Scout," suddenly leads the polls. A TIME/CNN survey last week by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman underlines Perot's surprising appeal: he wins a three-way race for the White House with 33% to Bush's 28%, with Clinton trailing at 24%. Perot has done the impossible: crafted a credible national campaign out of two dozen TV interviews and half a dozen speeches.

It's hard to remember that three months ago, Perot was just another TV talk- show guest, a blustery businessman who was supposed to chat with Larry King about the economy before a CNN special on breast implants. Asked at the outset whether he planned to run for President, Perot gave a typically forthright answer: "No." But 45 minutes later, Perot -- by all evidence impulsively -- dropped the biggest bombshell of the 1992 campaign. Yes, he'd run, and run hard, if his supporters would put him on the ballot in all 50 states as an independent. That "if" has been all but answered by the largest outpouring of volunteer enthusiasm America has seen since yellow ribbons dangled from every lamppost during the gulf war. (Perot, despite his superpatriot image, strongly opposed that war.) In an interview with TIME last week, Perot made it clear that the official declaration of his candidacy is a mere formality awaiting the proper dramatic moment.

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