WASHINGTON -- The best thing that could happen to Bill Clinton along the campaign trail may be the success of Ross Perot.
If Mr. Perot wins enough votes Nov. 3 to prevent President Bush or the Arkansas governor from capturing a majority in the Electoral College -- and fails to earn a majority there -- the choice will be thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives in a process not invoked since 1824.
With polls showing the three likely candidates nearly tied in public favor, a decision by the Democratic-tilting House looms as an increasingly real possibility.
As laid out in the 12th Amendment, a presidential election in which none of the candidates wins a majority -- in this case 270 of the 538 Electoral College votes -- is handed to the House, which chooses a winner from among the three top candidates. Each state has one vote, decided by a caucus of its House delegation. States that are deadlocked cast no vote.
A candidate needs a majority, or 26 states' votes, to be elected in this system, employed only twice in American history: in the standoff between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800, and again in 1824, when the House chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson.
In this election process, the U.S. Senate chooses the vice president from the top two vice-presidential candidates, with each senator casting one vote.
If the House cannot deliver a majority to any candidate by Jan. 20, the newly elected vice president serves as acting president. And if neither the House nor the Senate reaches verdicts by Inauguration Day, the speaker of the House -- currently, Washington Democrat Thomas S. Foley -- would be sworn in as president.
Already, Congress is wringing its hands, warning that this musty old system could lead to a "constitutional crisis."
For starters, the one-state, one-vote rule could result in a highly undemocratic outcome, say members and other politicians. The 26 smallest states, representing less than 20 percent of the total population, could decide the presidency, for instance.
"I think it's a recipe for, at a minimum, chaos, and at a maximum, disaster," says Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas, who would prefer to see the Electoral College abolished altogether and the presidency going to the candidate who receives the most votes in a popular election.
While it would seem that a vote in the Democratic-controlled House would translate into certain victory for Mr. Clinton, a number of factors make it less than a lock. For one thing, it is the "new" House, the one elected in November, that will vote. A gain in Republican seats could mean more split, and thus deadlocked, states.
Looking at the likely make-up of the 103rd Congress, Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, found that 21 states, Maryland among them, would "almost certainly fall into the Democratic column, and only four into the Republican."
While this still seems an easy ride for the Democratic nominee, state delegations may not vote along party lines. If their home states or even home districts vote heavily for, say, Mr. Perot, members of Congress would have to decide whether to follow the lead of their district or their party.
Last week, Mr. Glickman sent a letter to Speaker Foley and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, suggesting hearings and briefings regarding the consequences of such a stalemate, and an update of procedures.
He warns that the threat of such a non-traditional election could change the entire complexion of the campaign, with political parties focused on wooing members of the House -- especially one-, two- or three-member delegations -- and lots of back-room negotiations and handshake agreements.
"You want to be secretary of agriculture, Mr. Glickman?" the Kansas legislator only half jokes, offering an example of the kind of deal-making that could arise. "Well, here's the way to get it."