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Bob Dole's attempt to persuade Ross Perot to quit the presidential race backfired Thursday, returning the gleeful Texan to center stage to ridicule a "weird and totally inconsequential" gambit he quickly spurned.

"Do I intend to campaign to the bitter end? Yes," Perot told a National Press Club audience, clearly relishing a moment in the spotlight after months in which his third-party candidacy has been marginalized by Dole, President Clinton and apparent public disinterest.

Aides to Dole had hoped that his bid to Perot to drop out of the race and throw his support to him could be kept secret.

The fact that it immediately leaked -- apparently from within Perot's organization as well as the Republican camp -- and was splashed all over the headlines and the network news clearly irritated the Republican nominee.

During a campaign appearance in Pensacola, Fla., Dole allowed his frustrations to spill over, criticizing both the news media and the voters.

"I wonder sometimes what people are thinking about, or if people are thinking at all, if they've really watched this administration, watched what's happening in the White House," Dole said.

"We need to wake America up. It (the election) is 12 days away. Wake up, America. You're about to do yourselves an injustice if you vote for Bill Clinton."

Details of Wednesday's meeting between Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, and Perot were still sketchy Thursday, but they left many Republicans baffled.

Linda DiVall, a GOP pollster, called the Dole campaign's decision to approach Perot "strange."

Despite Perot's mockery of Dole, Clinton hardly escaped his disdain. He told the Washington gathering that Clinton faced "huge moral, ethical and criminal problems." The nation is headed straight toward a "second Watergate and a constitutional crisis in 1997," Perot said.

He criticized Clinton and the Democratic Party for accepting questionable campaign contributions.

Dole offered a similar refrain about alleged Clinton misdeeds and bashed the "liberal" media, in particular the New York Times, as insufficiently critical of Clinton.

"The country does not belong to the liberal media; it does not belong to Bill Clinton; it belongs to the people," Dole said.

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