DALLAS — DALLAS -- He came in third and declared victory.
For independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, whose quixotic journey along the campaign trail turned Election Year '92 into a political wonderland, just reaching the finish line in respectable fashion was glory enough.
For one thing, there was a personal victory, a personal vindication of sorts. No longer tagged "The Quitter" as he was when he aborted his campaign in July, the Texas billionaire can now lay claim to being the strongest independent or third-party candidate in 80 years.
Receiving 19 percent of the popular vote Tuesday night, he was only outdone in this century by former President Theodore Roosevelt who polled 27.4 percent in 1912, behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
But the 62-year-old businessman can also lay claim to changing the dynamics of this year's presidential race. Harnessing voter frustration with politics as usual, he proved there was a hunger among the public for straight talk and a serious discussion of issues -- although, with only one of his eight "infomercials" addressing his specific proposals, he rarely came through with the latter.
But even critics credit Mr. Perot with forcing the major party candidates, and the electorate, to focus on the deficit and national debt. In a recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for dTC People and the Press, four out of 10 Americans said the deficit should be the next president's top priority.
Launching his candidacy on CNN's "Larry King Live" and popping up on the network morning shows last spring as regularly as Martha Stewart and her recipes, Mr. Perot popularized the use of TV talk shows as campaign vehicles. By the end of the campaign, all of the candidates were talking about "town halls," another Perot idea, usually during their appearances on the Larry King show.
And in the end, Mr. Perot probably helped Democrat Bill Clinton take the White House from President Bush, if only by distracting the public enough last spring to give the Arkansas governor a chance to get back on his feet after a brutal primary season, and stirring up a call for change.
But for all the commotion and fervor surrounding the Perot candidacy, and for all the fascination the electorate and the media has had with the colorful, quick-witted Texan, his legacy could be a short-lived one.
"What's changed by virtue of the Perot candidacy? Very, very little," said Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University political scientist. "I'm not sure there's going to be any lasting legacy. It was an ego trip that, for 19 percent of the electorate, touched a responsive chord."
Mr. Perot's supporters, of course, would argue otherwise. At a post-election news conference at Perot headquarters yesterday, Orson Swindle, head of the "United We Stand, America" volunteer organization, said he was meeting with attorneys next week to formalize the group and set up by-laws and membership criteria.
"In all candor, there is no way we can stop it," he said of the group's enthusiasm and momentum, adding that Mr. Perot would act as a sort of "spiritual leader" for the organization and probably provide some initial funding.
Funding, in fact, is perhaps the most historic element of Mr. Perot's on-again, off-again campaign. The computer tycoon spent more than $60 million of his own money on his presidential bid, about half of it on advertising, said Clay Mulford, the campaign's legal counsel and Mr. Perot's son-in-law.
But here again, Mr. Wayne said: "He didn't leave a legacy that if you spent a lot of money you can win the White House."
But he did suggest that if you spent a lot of money you could come close.
When the petition drive to get Mr. Perot on all state ballots faltered after his mid-summer withdrawal from the race, Mr. Perot pumped in enough money -- about $7 million -- to make sure the job got done.
In the second phase of his candidacy -- the prime-time phase -- his bankroll allowed him to completely bypass the news media and any questioning of him, and instead sell his candidacy to the TV-viewing public on his own terms.
Ironically for a candidate whose battle cry was facing up to tough issues and problems, Mr. Perot completely short-circuited the political system and took the path of least resistance. With the exception of a flurry of rallies in the final week of the campaign, he avoided all personal appearances.
But even with his hours of air time, the ace computer salesman had a harder time selling himself, in part because, during the few non-choreographed moments of his 33-day campaign, he revived concerns about his temperament and nature.
"We haven't heard the last of Perot, that's for sure," said John C. White, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. "The question remains how big a player he'll be."