WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot is all the rage right now. One day the 61-year-old billionaire is holding forth on "Larry King Live!" on CNN, another on "60 Minutes" on CBS, still another before the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editor. A Gallup Poll finds him with one-fouth of the vote in a hypothetical matchup against President Bush and the Democratic nominee-presumptive, Gov. Bill Clinton, despite the fact that more than half the poll respondents can't identify Perot accurately.
Conventional politicians are at a loss to measure his potential if he does qualify for the ballot in all 50 states and runs as an independent candidate for president. The one thing they know is that they don't like the idea.
The uneasiness in the political community is based on two factors. The first is the recognition that the electorate is reacting angrily against politics as usual and the establishment. That has been apparent all year, most recently in the 275,000 voters in New York who went to the polls solely to vote for Paul Tsongas even after he had dropped out of the race. The second is Perot's promise -- or threat -- to spend up to $100 million of his own money on a presidential campaign.
The history of third-party candidacies suggests, nonetheless, that Perot is an extreme long shot. Then-Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama made the biggest score in modern political history when he carried five Southern states with 46 electoral votes and polled 14 percent of the popular vote in 1968. Wallace, too, was exploiting anger in the electorate -- in that case, over race and social unrest.
The usual pattern is for the voters to take a look at a third-party candidate, then endorse the two-party system with their ballots. In 1980, opinion polls showed independent candidate John B. Anderson of Illinois, a former Republican congressman whose political candor and courage hit a responsive nerve, with 18 percent to 20 percent of the vote with the election only a month away.
Then Anderson appeared with Republican nominee Ronald Reagan in a nationally televised debate from Baltimore. Anderson performed brilliantly but his support began to decline rapidly over the next few days as Republicans who had been leaning to him moved back to Reagan. Reagan had shown in that debate that he was not a frightening figure, after all. In the end, Anderson won 6.6 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.
At the outset, it is difficult to see where Perot will carry any state. He does not have any clear regional advantage comparable to that Wallace enjoyed in the South in 1968. Perot's home state of Texas is also claimed by President Bush. And the dissatisfaction Perot is trying to exploit seems spread over the entire nation.
But Perot could skew the outcome without winning any states. In that 1968 election, for example, Wallace apparently drew away enough likely Democratic voters to cost Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey the electoral votes of at least two major industrial states, Illinois and New Jersey. A Perot candidacy might have a similar impact this year.
But political professionals are not even agreed on which candidate would suffer most. One theory is that Perot, whose views are a mix of liberal and conservative, would do the most harm to President Bush by providing a landing place for Republicans who don't like Bush but can't swallow Clinton. It is equally possible, however, that he would draw most heavily from Democrats who don't like Clinton but can't bring themselves to support Bush.
The most menacing possibility in the eyes of the conventional politicians is that the number of voters who don't like either Bush or Clinton could make up more than one-third of the total and give Perot enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives. That sounds far-fetched, but this is a strange year and Perot is a most unusual political figure.
As former Gov. Mark White of Texas, who has had some unhappy dealings with Perot on both governmental and business matters, told a reporter the other day: "The one thing you mustn't do is underestimate Ross Perot."