WASHINGTON -- Colin L. Powell believes it would be difficult.
Newt Gingrich says it would be a disaster.
Ross Perot thinks it would be a world-class success.
Politicians and historians used to debate whether a presidential candidate running as an independent could win. Now, they are mulling whether an independent candidate, having won the presidency, could govern the nation.
That the topic is being debated at all testifies that, perhaps more than at any other time in the last half-century, the notion of an independent or third-party president seems, if not probable, at least possible.
But since no president in more than a century has emerged from outside the system's major parties, an independent-as-president would be charting new waters.
"It's a new scenario and therefore unpredictable," says Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University. "I wouldn't preclude it from working. Some people think the current thing isn't working very well."
Embodying the electorate's cry for something heroic, new and above the fray, a winning independent might enjoy an extended honeymoon period of Democratic and Republican goodwill on Capitol Hill.
"If Bill Clinton announces a program, he starts out knowing he can get at least 40 percent of the House and Senate to vote for it simply because he's a Democrat and they're Democrats," says William Mayer, a political science professor at Boston's Northeastern University who studies third parties
"A Colin Powell or Ross Perot starts out without that."
Mr. Wayne foresees three possible scenarios for an independent president: trying to develop a third party and encourage Democratic and Republican lawmakers to defect; attracting the support of one of the existing parties; or going it alone issue by issue, which he says is a recipe for "chaos."
Similarly, many of those sitting on the Democratic and Republican sides of the House and Senate chambers believe that if you choose to sit in the center aisle, you eventually become a doormat.
"You can produce a campaign speech, you can produce a 30-second commercial, you can hire consultants," House Speaker Gingrich said recently. "But when you get elected governor or you get elected president, if you are an independent, you have no base in the legislative body, you have no base in the country at large. I think an independent presidency would, in fact, be a disaster for this country."
But others, including independent governors who have had successful tenures, disagree. A number of political scientists make the point that, with the decline of party machinery over the past 25 years, the nation already has independent presidents in everything but name: politicians who are elected through their -- own efforts, not the party's, and govern with their own interests in mind, not the party's.
"We already have independent presidents -- they're just masquerading as Democrats and Republicans," says Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government.
"President Clinton is an independent. The congressional Democrats have pretty much written him off. They're long past supporting him because he's a Democrat. I don't think a truly independent president would be much different from what we have now."
For example, Mr. Ginsberg suggests that Mr. Clinton's greatest legislative success was the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an accomplishment achieved through a bipartisan coalition made up largely of Republicans.
Although there is no example at the presidential level to examine, states have occasionally been governed by independents, often with positive results.
Former Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, who is contemplating an independent run for the presidency next year, was elected governor of his state in 1990 after running in a three-way race on a third-party ticket.
"Weicker, for not having any troops, got along reasonably well," says Wayne Shannon, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut.
The Hartford Courant, in a March 1994 series examining the leadership of its first independent governor since before the Civil War, noted that none of the chaos and gridlock predicted by Mr. Weicker's Democratic and Republican challengers came to pass.
In fact, Mr. Weicker, who retired after one term, and others in the state believe his independent status actually helped him more than it hurt. For instance, after a protracted, hard-fought battle, he put together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to pass (by a single vote) an unpopular state income tax.
Similarly, Maine Gov. Angus King, an independent elected in November by a 2 percent margin, says there are more pros than cons to being party-less. He cites a recent vote by the state Legislature to send to referendum a line-item veto, a vote he won with the necessary two-thirds majority.
"I'm almost positive a partisan governor would not have gotten that vote," he says.
Governing as an independent is more work, he acknowledges, since he has to build coalitions on every issue. "I don't have an automatic set of supporters. But, by the same token, I don't have an automatic set of enemies. What I have is 186 skeptics," he says, referring to the number of lawmakers in the Legislature.
He also notes as a plus the freedom to surround himself with advisers and staff members from both parties as well as fellow independents.
But he says he isn't confident the formula would translate to Washington, where, instead of dealing with citizens on a state legislature, a chief executive would be dealing with the professional partisans of Congress.
"When you have career politicians who are tied to a party, it may be more difficult to get them to be objective about what is coming from an independent White House," says Governor King.
Indeed, Mr. Mayer of Northeastern, who is dubious about an independent presidency, says that while a lone-ranger leader could put together individual coalitions on particular issues, a president would have a hard time selling a broad-based platform such as the "Contract with America" without a party.
He believes the success or failure of an independent leader would ultimately hinge on the particular talents, strength and popularity of that person, noting that "the party makes up for some of the weaknesses of the president."
The two parties, he says, are easy targets for attack but nonetheless "a better way of lending structure and accountability to government than anything else anybody has ever come up with."
Still, many people believe an independent candidate could fit the bill given today's political landscape: party leaders as polarized as they've been in the last century, a president butting heads not only with the opposition but with his own party, and voters fed up with the Washington scene.
"I don't know why someone like Powell would have more difficulty working with a Republican majority than Clinton," says Mr. Shannon. "It might not work any worse than what we have now. But we sure as heck don't know."