WASHINGTON - Don't count Ross Perot out of presidential politics yet. Loyalists are quietly scrambling to meet a July 1 deadline to get the Texas billionaire's name on the Reform Party's primary ballot and knock Pat Buchanan out of the running.
The party's founder ''has no intention of running a competitive race'' against the Republican and Democratic nominees this year, top aide Russell Verney said in an interview.
But he also said that Perot, if he won the nomination in August, could use the $12.6 million in federal funding that comes with it to build the party back up from the factional fighting that was crippling it even before Buchanan came over from the GOP.
Longtime loyalist Ira Goodman of Mahwah, N.J., said he has told Verney the only way the supporters would stop their petition drive was at the direction of Perot. ''As long as the door is cracked open, we're going for it,'' Goodman said.
Verney said Perot hasn't expressed a preference either way.
The Texan may well have swayed the 1992 election in President Clinton's favor by winning 19 percent of the vote. Four years later, he won only 8 percent, but that was still enough to qualify the party's next presidential nominee for the $12.6 million in federal money.
Buchanan is now at roughly 4 percent in the public opinion polls, far behind the major party contenders, Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Buchanan's supporters say Goodman's plan might not comply with party rules. Some are talking about trying to block any Perot nomination at the national convention Aug. 10-13 in Long Beach, Calif.
Buchanan has been touring state Reform Party meetings to elect enough national delegates to guarantee him the nomination and stop a challenge by a primary winner or anyone else.
His supporters recognize the threat within his adopted party.
''Perot's the founder of this party and he would be a very formidable candidate,'' said Buchanan's political director, Tim Haley. ''But if he's on the ballot, I still think we would win the nomination.''
Goodman's effort focuses on a complex party formula for qualifying for the primary. Voting takes place between July 4, when ballots are mailed out to Reform Party members - and just about any other U.S. resident who requests one - and the convention. In between, the party might sign a contract with a private firm that also would make balloting available online, party officials say.
To qualify for the primary, a candidate must acquire signatures in states that represent at least 153 electoral votes and where the Reform Party does not already have ballot access. The requirement must be met and the candidate must accept his spot on the ballot by July 1, according to party rules.
About six weeks ago, Goodman came up with his own formula for how many signatures he would need in which states. The states' requirements vary widely, from New Jersey's - 800 signatures to get credit for the state's 15 electoral votes - to Illinois' - 6,250 signatures to add its 22 votes to the tally, Goodman said.
Perot loyalists in a quarter of the 19 states and District of Columbia have satisfied the requirement, with another quarter on-track to finish within a week, according to Goodman. The other half, Goodman said, have a good shot at meeting the deadline.
Buchanan's camp will believe it when they see it.
''We think it's a very small number of people involved,'' said Haley. But other Buchanan supporters are making plans to challenge Perot's nomination on the floor of the convention if necessary.
Buchanan's people have said he can unite and save the party from damage that was inflicted by factional fighting long before he arrived on the scene.
But his presence has gone a long way to unite those factions against him. Buchanan's state-by-state campaign tactics and comments on social issues like abortion and homosexuality have offended longtime party members.
Perot has been silent so far. He has made clear to those close to him, however, that he has no intention of attending a national convention that nominates Buchanan.
Goodman, a 52-year-old marketing researcher, attended a press conference in Virginia to welcome Buchanan into the party and remembers ''applauding wildly.'' But in the flood of e-mail and his own conversation with Buchanan supporters and campaign workers, he became worried.
''My goal is to get the best person on the ballot,'' he says.