A weird quiet settled over Ross Perot's campaign team in Dallas last Tuesday, and an unnatural stillness. Edward J. Rollins, their battle-worn commander, said afterward he had never seen such silence in a campaign season.

From the coffee-room window, if they looked, he and his staff could see a distant office tower rising above a plain of glass-and-steel buildings. There, they figured, Perot was contemplating their future in the pages of Rollins's last, desperate memo. Perot had three options, the memo said: run a real campaign, and possibly win; continue his non-campaign, and surely lose; or quit.

The tense, silent Tuesday turned to Wednesday, and still no word. When finally it came, they knew they were finished. Option One was out: no real campaign. But even Rollins was surprised the next day, when Perot settled on Option Three.

Perot quit -- but not necessarily for the reasons he has given. According to interviews with Rollins and other campaign insiders since Perot gave up the race Thursday, he did not quit because the Democrats had revitalized themselves or because throwing a three-way presidential election to the House would have been "disruptive."

Ross Perot quit because he could not stomach politics: the hired guns burnishing his image, the junk mail, the scrutiny by the press, the pounding from opponents, the sugar-coating of hard truths. The question, in the end, was whether he was ever truly a candidate.

Perot promised to run as the outsider who would break the hold of politics on government, to "take out the trash and clean out the barn." Instead, the specter of politics drove him from the race. It was as if he wanted to clean out the barn without getting his hands dirty. As he has done at other critical points in his career, he walked away from a confrontation he concluded he would lose.

"To win, which would be to do it our way, was not what he was about," said Rollins. "He didn't see himself as being like anyone else, and he wouldn't use the tools everyone else used. When we tried to explain those tools and explain you couldn't get there without them, well, he just couldn't go forward."

For five months, a rapt America watched as Perot, the supposed man of action and determination, self-styled Mr. Fix-It for the stalled machinery of democracy, vaulted in the polls and shredded the political map. Behind the scenes, though, there was more paralysis and indecision than action and determination. Perot's bandwagon was stuck on the shoulder of the road.

Believing he could win simply by sticking with the homespun, chat-show approach that fueled his early success, Perot resisted advice that his insurgency must be strengthened by more traditional tactics. He objected strongly, insiders said, even to upbeat television ads in which volunteers told why they liked him.

To understand the end of Perot's campaign is to perceive more clearly this man who so improbably seemed to be turning a page of history. He was a complicated presence on the political scene: quick-witted but obstinate, worldly yet naive about campaigns, outwardly certain yet inwardly unsure of his enterprise.

The Beginning: Feb. 20

Perot's campaign began in earnest on Feb. 20, the day the billionaire Texan said at the end of an interview with Larry King on Cable News Network that he would run if supporters got him on the ballot in all 50 states.

Within minutes the telephones at his Dallas computer-services firm were so jammed no one could call out. In mid-March, when the campaign's toll-free telephone number was broadcast for the first time, a record 18,000 calls were placed in one 30-second period, 500,000 over the next 24 hours.

Within weeks Perot had volunteer organizations in every state, and millions of Americans were signing Perot petitions. Political pros knew they were watching something special, and some of them, disaffected from the major-party candidates, began to offer Perot advice. Gerald Rafshoon, who once advised President Jimmy Carter on media, was one.

"There were a lot of voters just drifting around at that point, looking for something new," Rafshoon said last week. "Put {Gen. H. Norman} Schwarzkopf's name in there and he would get the same numbers. I tried to tell Perot he must define himself, draw his positions, before his opponents did it for him."

Rafshoon's message must have sounded strange to Perot, who never had much use for specialists anyway. After all, he'd been defining himself for decades, skillfully crafting a legend from his remarkable life, using his gift for a good story and his mastery of the charged symbols of the American myth.

Reporters streamed to Dallas, to the office jammed with Perot memorabilia and the iconography of Middle America. Perot recounted the hard times of his Texarkana boyhood, his nurturing family, his paper route and his Eagle Scout exploits. He eagerly discussed his most valorous moments: battling to free U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam and springing two employees from an Iranian jail.

Through May and into June, Perot kept rising in the polls, drawing even, then moving ahead. At last, Perot's top aides, lawyer Tom Luce and businessman Morton Meyerson, convinced their boss that the movement was too big to be run solely by amateurs. They needed professional help.

They found two seasoned, but disaffected, pros: Rollins, the manager of Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984, and Hamilton Jordan, chief of Jimmy Carter's 1976 triumph. Both men have said they were attracted by the chance to tear up the rule book and make politics new. They talked of huge budgets with Perot and he didn't blink. The world may never know, exactly, what Perot thought he was getting. Perhaps he envisioned a dull, high-minded campaign in which he would patiently explain the issues to America. In any event, the conventional wisdom at the time -- that Perot was truly in the game for keeps -- was mistaken.

Rollins started work June 8, and he was shocked at what he found. "Oh, God," he recalled thinking, "what have I done? . . . It was so eerie the day I walked in there," he said. "There was this huge building but there was no campaign. . . . He scheduled himself, did his own press. I brought in political people, scheduling people, events people." Almost overnight, Rollins assembled a blue-chip team.

If this had been a normal campaign, they would have done polling, identified key issues, determined precisely what voters liked and disliked about Perot. But there wasn't time.

"We were clearly in the sights of our opponents and the media," said Sal Russo, a campaign consultant Rollins had hired. "We knew we needed to protect our flank, to shore him up for when the barrage came."

The task was the same one Rafshoon had identified: to define Perot, the man and his views. The chance was slipping away. Rollins turned to an ally who had worked magic before: Hal Riney, the ad man who designed Reagan's gauzy, feel-good "Morning in America" spots. By capturing the Perot legend and the spirit of the volunteer movement, Riney would reassure alienated but patriotic voters that it would be all right to vote for a third-party candidate.

When Perot hit the campaign trail in mid-June, Riney was there, taping some of his intensely upbeat rallies in state capitals across the country. Gazing out over thousands of cheering faces each day, Perot could be forgiven for thinking things were going well. He was confident, according to insiders, that his support was granite.

But the pros had seen similar, if smaller, waves of political enthusiasm, and knew how quickly a groundswell could wash away. Perot would talk happily about the zeal of the rallies, but Rollins would counter by reminding him that evangelist Pat Robertson had zealous crowds in 1988, and lost badly.

Perot misunderstood what was unique about his candidacy, several campaign members said. True, his personal appeal and quick surge were amazing -- but the key was that he had the money to stay in the fight even after the bloom wore off. Few independents ever have both.

Money was crucial to a Perot campaign. Not that he was averse to the idea of spending. Rollins said he and Perot discussed pouring $50 million or more into television before Rollins accepted the job. "Money was not the issue," Rollins said. The candidate was generous with equipment and salaries; he was openhanded with his offices in the field; the soda machines at the Dallas headquarters were free.

What Perot objected to were the specific costs. When his staff proposed a $2 million to $3 million direct-mail campaign to thank and energize Perot's petition signers, the candidate scoffed. He tossed junk mail out; wouldn't everybody? More significantly, he objected to increasingly urgent pleas for a $7 million initial advertising campaign.

The pleas were urgent because the inevitable had arrived -- the news media were pulling the loose strings of Perot's legend. There were questions about his business dealings, about his naval career, about Electronic Data Systems, the company he built. There were questions about the Iran rescue and the motivations behind his missions to Vietnam. Encouraged by attacking Republicans and by whispering Democrats, pundits wondered whether Perot was a fascist, or a kook. Even his boyhood paper route came under scrutiny.

The campaign pros were burning to act, to get things moving again, by the time Riney completed his sample ads early this month. The scenes of charged-up volunteers singing the praises of Perot "were perfect, as perfect as political advertising can be," said Rollins. But Perot, whose antipathy for professional ad men dated back at least 20 years, was unmoved. The ads looked too . . . political.

They had to air something, Rollins and Jordan agreed. So 10 days ago, Riney met with Perot, screened his raw videotape and asked for guidance. What did Perot have in mind? Perot talked instead about his command of free television: Larry King, Barbara Walters, the "Today" show. "Why pay good money for something you can get for free?" Rollins remembers him asking. Rollins answered that commercials are the only forum the candidate can truly control.

Instead of an ad campaign, the meeting resulted in Riney's firing. That, Rollins said, was when he began to fear it would never work.

Jordan had long since reached that conclusion, according to Rollins and others. Almost from the week he arrived, Jordan had talked of quitting. His wife, Dorothy, mistrustful of Perot and displeased with Jordan's return to politics, encouraged her husband to leave, the aides said.

Two weeks ago, Jordan threatened Perot that he might leave. Fine, Perot answered, according to Rollins. Jordan periodically asked Rollins to quit with him in a mass defection, Rollins said. But Rollins said he wouldn't leave, partly because he felt responsible for the 35 people he had brought aboard the campaign.

Speech to the NAACP

By last weekend, the campaign was becoming unspooled.

Rollins and another top Perot aide, James Squires -- a Rollins adversary who advised ignoring the professionals' advice -- told Perot he should address the Nashville convention of the NAACP.

Perot didn't want to go, thinking it was the kind of special-interest group to which he needn't appeal. He refused aides' advice that he should take staff members to deal with reporters, and discarded Squires's suggestions for the speech. Instead Perot delivered his standard speech with a few yarns about how his cotton-dealer father had been kindly toward blacks. And he called African Americans "you people."

The speech bombed, and, shaken by the criticism, Perot told aides he would not address other groups that might expect him to speak a certain way or use particular words. He was shocked that things he used to say to great acclaim were now getting him in trouble.

And he knew even deeper trouble was ahead. The policy team had come up with recommendations for cutting $500 billion from the federal budget. Much more specific than the other candidates' plans, the Perot proposal was going to be a political nightmare, with its calls for higher taxes and a one-tenth reduction in federal programs.

That prospect "had a lot to do with Mr. Perot's decision" to quit, Squires told NBC News. It was inconceivable that the man who supposedly confronted truth regardless of the consequences would flinch on this one -- but the consequences would be devastating.

"By then it was clear Perot was having big doubts . . . about this idea of running a standard campaign," Rollins said.

Russo said he'd never seen such a situation in the dozens of campaigns he'd advised. "We could never get to, 'Okay, let's go.' It was mind-boggling how many half-roasted plans were being pulled from the ovens: Maybe they'd have a convention at the Rose Bowl, maybe 2,000 separate meetings of volunteers, maybe gatherings of Hollywood supporters.

"We were getting panicked," Russo said. "We were watching this thing crumble. We didn't know the candidate was . . . willing to let it crumble."

Perot was lost, perhaps as never before, campaign aides said. Stuck with a platform that could only hurt him, he felt a growing rift from the very voters with whom he'd felt so in tune. His reputation was being raked daily by the media. And he was dropping in the polls.

Last Sunday, the evening after the disastrous NAACP speech, Rollins composed a memo outlining a streamlined campaign plan -- including a convention and modest advertising. He said it had to be acted on immediately if there was to be any hope.

On Monday, Perot turned him down flat.

That night, Rollins composed his final memo to the candidate, offering the three options. Run a real campaign, and maybe become president. Run a non-campaign, and lose. Or quit. Rollins thought it inconceivable that Perot would quit.

Rollins gave the memo to Luce and Meyerson Tuesday morning. Then he waited. His entire staff of 35 waited. Everything was on hold.

Rollins remembered: "We keep walking into each other's offices, saying, 'What do you hear?' We hear nothing all day, and I think, 'He won't do it. It is all over for this campaign.'

"Wednesday nothing happens again," Rollins said. "Our morning meeting is canceled. . . . So I call Meyerson and Luce and say, 'Hey, this is ridiculous. What happened?' They say, 'Perot is not going to go ahead for full-scale. . . . We don't think you can survive here. And he is mad.'

"So I said the last thing I want to do is sit at a desk in a campaign headquarters heading a campaign that is not a campaign," Rollins said. "The message was very clear: If I did not quit, I would be fired. . . . He was not going to deal with professionals."

Rollins announced he was leaving that day, praising Luce, who had stood by him throughout the ordeal. Campaign insiders were shocked Jordan didn't leave that day, too. He declined to comment on his early threats to quit or his final decision to stay.

Given his disdain for the professionals, it is intriguing to think that Perot's ultimate decision may have come because he finally concluded they were right. "I'm an engineer," he said as he quit, and perhaps his just-facts approach persuaded him there was indeed no way to win without politics.

In the beginning, that night in February on "Larry King Live," Perot said he had no desire to run for president. Later, he said he never expected volunteers to take up his challenge. All this was widely dismissed as a case of false modesty. After all, one of Perot's strongest appeals was the sense that he was being called to serve, unlike a groveling politician.

But perhaps it was true. At Perot rallies, whenever he gave his stump speech, some sensed a faint wind from an exit door left ajar. He always praised his volunteers for what they had already done, always assured them that "whatever happens" they had "changed the American political process."

In those moments, when he sounded as if he were about to declare victory and withdraw, the country got its plainest glimpse of Candidate Ross Perot. He was never entirely in the race. Just as, Friday night on the King show, Perot sounded like he might never entirely get out.

"He is totally naive about politics," said Rollins, who still thinks well of Perot. "The press started looking at his kids and that bugged him. . . . He had concerns about his security at the rallies. . . . And then I think when he got into the issues, he saw how complicated it was, how incredibly complicated, to put yourself forward as the candidate with the answers. And it was just no fun."

Staff writers Ann Devroy and Michael Isikoff contributed to this report.