I n George Bush's mind, the shooting couldn't start soon enough. Like Bill Clinton's handlers, his people had spent much of the spring tiptoeing gingerly around Perot, frightened off by his rising numbers in the polls and his seemingly bottomless pockets. But Bush had been building up a head of steam at least since mid-May, when he came into possession of a videotape of a Dallas TV interview with the Plain Texas Talker talking about him. As he screened the show, Bush alternated long, smoky silences with muttered complaints about this slap shot or that dodge. It was not until Perot charged him with having brought on the Gulf war by coddling Saddam Hussein that the president finally exploded.
"That's a lie!" he snapped at the screen. "My instinct is go fight that little guy. When do I get to take him on?"
It would take some time for his impatience to overcome what he saw as the timorousness of his own troops. If they had only known it, Perot was an easy target -- a man who regarded image as a dirty word and so hadn't done or authorized a thing to protect his own. But to his opponents that spring, he was something new and dangerous, a billionaire populist riding a squall line of white middle-class discontent with the old political order. Handlers, who ply a trade learned only by experience, had never seen anything quite like the Perot phenomenon before. Their reflex accordingly was to hunker down like islanders in the path of a hurricane and pray that, with a little help from the media, it would blow over.
Clinton's people were particularly eager to avoid, or at least postpone, a fight. The national Democratic Party's oppo man, Dan Carol, did set up a covert lunch with David Tell, his counterpart at BushQuayle headquarters, to see if they could swap dossiers. Carol called for Tell at his office, wearing a false beard as a joke. Then they adjourned to a Chinese restaurant near Dupont Circle, away from the usual haunts favored by political operatives, and talked in a general way about what sort of goodies each might provide the other.