Before Ross Perot turned his medicine wagon back toward the Texas plains, he performed two valuable services during this election year:
He cracked the set-in-stone notion of invincibility of the sitting president. George Bush, riding the all-time high of popularity polls a year ago, fell off a steep cliff, but it took Mr. Perot to make that clear.
One cause was the long economic slowdown he couldn't blame on a Democratic predecessor. Another was the revelation that Mr. Bush aided and abetted Saddam Hussein before turning on him in self-righteous indignation. A final cause was sniper fire from one Ross Perot.
Mr. Perot's second gift, just now visible, is the exposure of so many gullible people who should have known better than to buy snake oil.
One example is the Rev. Calvin O. Butts of New York. Mr. Butts, pastor of Harlem's famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, was quoted Thursday in the New York Times attacking Rep. Charles B. Rangel for criticizing Mr. Perot.
The Rev. Butts was on the defensive for rushing to sign onto a program not yet enunciated by a man arrogant enough to address an NAACP convention as ''you people,'' but never mind that. Social and economic conditions had declined in Harlem since Mr. Rangel supplanted the late Adam Clayton Powell, and Mr. Butts blamed Mr. Rangel and the Democrats.
The Democrats could point out that Ronald Reagan and George Bush had more to do with that than anything Mr. Rangel did, but Mr. Butts was not talking to them. Who's he talking to now?
A second example came in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal front-pager, ''Win or Lose, Perot Proves One Can Run Without Major Parties.'' Does it, now?
Mr. Perot, riding a wave of voter disenchantment with President Bush and seeing an apparent lack of enthusiasm for Bill Clinton, shook people up by saying he might run, then spent a lot of money to convince people he should.
As Mr. Perot came to see, however, there is more to running for office than launching broadsides. First comes press scrutiny, which in his case exposed a mile-wide mean and greedy streak. Second comes the counterattack of other candidates, who, after all, are geared for combat. Mr. Bush did the honors.
Next is the need to put programs before the people. Here Mr. Perot, with no experience in public service and no party apparatus to help him develop a plan, turned up as empty-headed as he was empty-handed.
Bill Clinton's ''convention bump'' in popularity dropped Mr. Perot to a bad third on the polls he was using to show he was a contender. Exit, Mr. Perot, to the consternation of a small army of volunteers. What did they expect from a man who tried to stack the deck every time he made a business bet? That he suddenly would learn to stick it out with the odds no longer on his side?
That lack of real analysis has plagued this race. During the Democratic Convention, speaker after speaker talked about issues, but all network commentators wanted to discuss was ''inside baseball'': Did the Democrats take too big a risk in letting AIDS activists speak? Since that succeeded, had the GOP made the wrong decision not to have them? How did Mr. Clinton handle the ''Jesse Jackson problem?'' The ''Jerry Brown problem?''
Was this news coverage or ''Candid Camera in the Back Room?''
Mr. Jackson made a speech that showed him to be a party loyalist and compromiser while still sketching out his alternative view of where the party should be going. It also showed that, even as a non-candidate, he could put tears in activists' eyes. ''Vintage Jackson,'' the pundits said; let's move on. Maria Shriver cornered Jesse Jackson Jr., baldly trying to start a fight over whether Mr. Jackson felt ''abused'' by the standard-bearers.
Mario Cuomo gave a heart-thumping endorsement, blistering the Reagan-Bush record and energizing the convention. Did he feel the ''liberal wing'' had been shut out? Andrea Mitchell wanted to know. Not at all, he said; we're ready to fight for the White House. Dull convention, the pundits said. No intrigue, no big clashes.
But intrigue is not the main event. The big job is promoting candidates, stating the agenda in ways that engage the public mood and rallying the faithful to the fight.
Politics is still the science of the possible in an ecology of competing needs. Amid an economy so stagnant, the focus must be on the issues, not the side points.
Ross Perot has exposed Mr. Bush's weaknesses and it is up to the Democrats to exploit them, or go down trying. For their part, the Democrats have defined their line of attack, and it is time the commentators caught up. Analysis must turn toward that bottom line, not to the minutiae of gamesmanship.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.