ROSS PEROT says the time has come for a third party in America. He predicts that the loyalists of his 1992 campaign, plus converts to the point of view of his United We Stand, America organization, will get a new party on the ballot in all 50 states, then select a presidential ticket that will be competitive with the Republican and Democratic tickets. He himself may head the ticket, but he urges others, of "the caliber" of Colin Powell, to seek it.
Mr. Perot, who got 19 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 1992, says he expects his party will eventually supplant either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. That is a grand vision. How grand? The last time it happened was in 1856. The Republican Party ran its first candidate that year, elected its next in 1860 (Abraham Lincoln), and the old Whig Party died. Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Progressives made a valiant try in 1912, but then lost and faded.
Against the 140-year history of Republican-Democratic duopoly, Mr. Perot cites today's public opinion. Most pollsters report that at least a third of all voters identify themselves as independents. Over 60 percent of all voters say they would welcome a new party. There is also the evidence of recent polls pitting "Independent" Colin Powell against Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole in 1996. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last week showed Mr. Powell and President Clinton tied with 30 percent of the vote and Senator Dole with 26 percent.
Figuring out the long-range prospects of a new party is too iffy to be worth it. But short-range there is a strong consensus among political professionals that a Perot-type third party candidate would hurt the Republican ticket next year. Maybe fatally. That may or may not have happened in 1992. Exit polls showed about half of Perot voters said they would have voted for George Bush and half for Bill Clinton.
But that was then. Times have changed. In 1994 Perot supporters voted 69 percent to 31 percent for Republican congressional candidates. The most recent Los Angeles Times poll shows a Perot candidacy drawing more votes from candidate Dole than candidate Clinton.
Can Mr. Perot and those who think like him repeat or improve on his 1992 showing next year and thereafter? Some intriguing new figures -- Bill Bradley, Lowell Weicker and Mr. Powell -- have entered the scene. The only thing we would predict is that 1996's politics just got even more unpredictable.