WASHINGTON -- In theory, they are the pivotal part of the American electorate, the critical middle that wishes a pox on all houses of government. And in next week's elections, they could tip whether Congress goes Republican or Democratic, decide dozens of individual races and forge the direction of government for two years.
They are the Perot vote, that 20 percent of the electorate that helped Ross Perot mount the most successful independent presidential candidacy in 70 years. Now, two years later, what remains of his supporters and which way are they leaning?
"They are the same-sized group [as two years ago], but different people -- and it looks pretty grim" for Democrats, said President Clinton's pollster, Stanley B. Greenberg. A study by Mr. Greenberg in July identified the 20 million Perot voters as "the pivotal force in American politics."
In 1992, "we wanted to make sure we were splitting the Perot vote in our local races," said Republican pollster Linda Divall. "This year we hope to get 60 percent of them." The Perot bloc appears to be tipping Senate races in Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan and Maine to the Republicans. They are also playing a crucial role in pulling voters away from House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who could become the first Speaker to lose a re-election bid in 130 years. And the Perot bloc is hurting even moderate Democratic incumbents in dozens of other races, particularly in the West and the Northeast, where Mr. Perot's appeal is strongest.
Mr. Perot announced two weeks ago that he believes his supporters should back the Republican Party. But there are doubts about the power of that endorsement.
"The Perot factor is what I call 'ephemeral heresy,' " said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "They left George Bush for Ross Perot in 1992, and they are returning to the Republican Party in 1994."
The shifting has occurred as fundamental changes have taken place in the core of Mr. Perot's support. In the past two years, the Texas billionaire has lost much of his appeal among independent middle-class and upper-middle-class suburbanites and women. They have been replaced by seething-mad blue-collar voters, predominantly men, whom pollsters used to call Ronald Reagan Democrats.
At the moment, Mr. Clinton has thoroughly antagonized these voters. "They are a 10 on the saliva test," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who was formerly Mr. Perot's pollster. "When you mention Washington, they practically spray you they get so agitated."
"Perot had two bases of support, those who wanted to change government and those who wanted to torch it," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who is closely studying the Perot phenomenon. "He kept the torchers, in fact he got more of them, but he lost the changers."
Mr. Luntz said Mr. Perot's "middle-class supporters still like his message, but they have become sour about the messenger."
The shift has also raised doubts about the number of Perot supporters who will take the time to vote Nov. 8. An ever-larger percentage of the Perot bloc is made up of alienated voters who are less likely to turn out at the polls, especially in midterm elections, said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster who has watched the Perot vote in his state.
Mr. Luntz predicted that Perot voters will be 8 percent to 10 percent of the midterm electorate. Ms. Lake predicted that it could be as high as 16 percent.
Democrats also apparently have failed to capture another, potentially more promising group of voters: those who gave their allegiance to Mr. Perot two years ago but have since turned away. They are considered more volatile than Perot devotees and could go for either party in November.
Looking ahead to 1996, Mr. Perot's appeal among Republicans is a double-edged sword for the party. His support can be helpful but, if he runs again, he could siphon off even more Republican support than he did in 1992.
"When we run three ways with Perot, Clinton goes ahead against Bob Dole," Ms. Lake said. "Perot even makes it close for Clinton against Colin Powell," the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who draws high marks in polls.
The Republican tendencies of Perot supporters also mean that Mr. Perot's endorsement of Republicans means less than it once did. Most of his supporters would have voted Republican anyway.