WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot's plan to start a new Independence Party and drive either the Republican or Democratic Party into oblivion could be an historic development in American politics -- or a grand fizzle.
It depends on how enthusiastically Mr. Perot's troops respond, and whether a candidate of substance seizes the opportunity if it materializes.
As usual, Mr. Perot said it was "the people" talking, and indeed the plan comes after yearlong discussions and workshops of his United We Stand America organization on the feasibility and desirability of a third party.
But "the people" -- members of the organization around the country -- were taken by surprise by the plan, having been told by the Dallas headquarters only to be sure to watch Mr. Perot on television Monday night, when he unveiled his scheme.
Immediate speculation centers on whether retired Gen. Colin Powell, deliberating on whether he should seek the presidency, and if so as a Republican or as an independent, would be receptive to carrying the Independence Party banner.
Mr. Powell greeted the development noncommittally, saying he would "watch and wait and see how this initiative develops, and keep my options open."
But veteran political operatives express doubt that Mr. Powell would want either to be associated with Mr. Perot or to hook up with a new party when he could run as a Republican or, as Mr. Perot did in 1992, as an independent without party -- and without the legal hurdles party affiliation poses.
"Powell's best shot"
One who says running without a party would be the best route for Mr. Powell is David Garth, the New York political consultant who was involved in the independent presidential candidacy of John Anderson in 1980. "Powell's best shot," he says, "would be as an independent because he can't get the Republican nomination without civil war. If Perot would turn his apparatus over to Powell, it would be a miracle, counter to the Perot personality. Perot is not going to get off the stage."
Mr. Garth also suggests that while it might be possible for Mr. Powell to get the backing of the Perot supporters, he asks: "At what price? If Powell doesn't want to run with Dole as vice president, why would he put himself in the position of being the captive of Ross Perot?"
Longtime Republican consultant Eddie Mahe agrees. He says he also seriously questions whether Mr. Perot can get his new party off the ground in California, as he has indicated. Mr. Mahe says he doesn't think Perot workers can get the nearly 900,000 valid signatures for ballot position before the state's October 24 deadline, and he doubts their willingness to pony up the millions it would take to stage primaries to pick the Independence Party presidential nominee. Faced with headlines like "Ross Perot Chooses Colin Powell to be His Candidate," Mr. Mahe says, "Powell is too smart for that. Why would he want to pick up all the Ross Perot negatives and put them on his back?"
It is always possible that voters disenchanted with the two major parties could seize on the Perot initiative, qualify the new party for ballot position in all 50 states, "draft" Mr. Powell and leave Mr. Perot in the dust. Poll after poll indicates that public sentiment for an independent candidacy is strong.
Perot to the rescue
But as Mr. Garth notes, it's not in Mr. Perot's nature to step aside willingly and let somebody else have the spotlight. It takes no crystal ball to see the eventuality of the new party failing to attract Mr. Powell or some other prominent figure, and Mr. Perot riding to the rescue by offering himself -- reluctantly, to be sure -- as its candidate.
Republican candidate Lamar Alexander has been quick to warn that "a Ross Perot third party," coupled with the GOP nomination of Bob Dole or Phil Gramm, would mean defeat for the Republican Party and the re-election of President Clinton in 1996. That observation is self-serving, certainly, but the Democrats do have grounds to see a third party as splitting the anti-Clinton vote and helping the president.
Whatever the outcome, Ross Perot seems determined to be the fly in the soup, in one way or another.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.