WASHINGTON -- There is growing speculation by political professionals that some kind of third-party or independent presidential candidacy is inevitable in 1996.
Some of the speculation obviously is being nourished by the noises coming from Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who captured 19 percent of the vote in 1992 despite displaying a temperament that was far from presidential.
And no one imagines that his ambition to run things his way has been satisfied.
Then there are the continued hints, oblique they may be, from Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They come just often enough for insiders to realize that he wants to keep the ball in the air.
And, of course, there is always the possibility of Jesse Jackson running as an independent if the civil rights leader decides a Democratic Party with Bill Clinton still in charge is more than he can abide. At the moment, that one seems least likely.
The most important factor fanning the speculation, however, is the one element always necessary for a third-party candidate to thrive -- widespread dissatisfaction with the options being offered by the two major parties.
President Clinton's approval ratings have risen in the last 10 days on the strength of his response to the disaster in Oklahoma City, but they have risen far less -- 6 percent or 8 percent in most surveys -- than many political strategists might have expected. And the president still seems to have a negative rating with 40 percent to 43 percent of the voters, not a formula for political comfort.
On the Republican side, the only candidate even registering in surveys is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. But even Republican operatives who like Dole concede that he is a candidate who is likely to cause polarization and evoke negative reactions from Republicans who are not prepared to support a Democrat like Clinton.
The other Republicans seeking the nomination, with the conspicuous exception of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, are running campaigns that are so determinedly harsh and negative they inevitably will alienate some would-be supporters.
For the White House, there are two potential developments that Democratic strategists believe could make or break Clinton in his campaign for a second term.
A Perot candidacy, analysts in both parties seem to agree, still would make it easier for Clinton to win. Opinion polls consistently find that most Perot voters would support a Republican if the Texas independent were not available as a vehicle for their protest.
Perot would not need 19 percent of the vote again to make a difference; even 7 or 8 points could be decisive in a close election.
The most frightening possibility for the Democrats is that Powell would run either as an independent or, far less likely, accept the vice presidential nomination on a Republican ticket.
If either happened, there is every reason to believe there would a substantial defection from the Democrats among black voters. And it should not be forgotten that both of the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Clinton, were provided their winning margins by those same black voters. Neither carried a majority or plurality of the white vote.
Some Democrats believe Jackson could cause similar defections as an independent, although he forfeited some of the political credibility he enjoyed in the 1984 and 1988 primary campaigns when he decided against running for mayor of the District of Columbia in 1990.
But, despite an uneasy relationship with Clinton, Jackson still enjoys influence within the Democratic Party that, according to those who know him best, he might be reluctant to sacrifice with an independent candidacy. Jackson has always been someone who wanted a seat at the table at which decisions are made.
If you were going to make a bet, the smart one now would be that no credible independent or third-party challenge will materialize in 1996. But it wouldn't be a smart bet because it is obvious that the political climate is remarkably unsettled.