NEW YORK. — New York -- Leave it to Ross Perot to screw up the best line of the Democratic Convention -- Georgia Gov. Zell Miller's crack that Americans had to choose among ''an aristocrat, an autocrat and a Democrat.''
The Texas autocrat has cried ''surrender'' first, proving the wisdom of my column of April 10, in which I said, ''Don't put your dough on H. Ross Perot.'' There was never any chance that Mr. Perot would do better against the two-party system than Teddy Roosevelt did in 1912 when he finished ahead of the Republican, William Howard Taft, but still got only 88 electoral votes, with 435 going to the winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Mr. Perot's giant-sized ego told the little businessman that the country was so tired of ''politicians'' that Americans would sweep him into the White House by acclamation. He didn't factor in the reality that the media and the people would ask some questions about his business dealings and personal character that would hurt like a burr between a bronco and a saddle. Thin-skinned Ross became openly irritable and combative when a reporter asked him even a mildly challenging question.
Mr. Perot learned after blowing some $10 million what I have said all along: if Nelson Rockefeller, Averell Harriman and other wealthy people could not buy the presidency, even a Perot with $3.5 billion would not be able to purchase the Oval Office.
Forget all the lofty lies by Mr. Perot about how he quit in the interest of his country. When recent polls showed that his support had dropped precipitously from 38 percent to 20 percent, he knew he had no chance of winning the popular vote and the 270 electoral votes needed for election.
He knew that if the election were thrown into the House of Representatives, probably not a single state delegation would vote for him. Some call Mr. Perot a ''quitter''; I think he was just a businessman-poker player who decided not to send $100 million in good money to chase $10 million in bad, lost money.
What is the electoral fallout of Mr. Perot's withdrawal?
The conventional wisdom was that the Democrats couldn't win a head-to-head confrontation with Bush. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia told me a week ago that his Democrats needed Mr. Perot to remain a viable candidate until about October 15. Yet, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken right after Mr. Perot's announcement that he will not run showed Bill Clinton leading George Bush by a whopping 56 to 33 percent. The same poll had 53 percent of Mr. Perot's supporters saying they will vote for Mr. Clinton and only 35 percent vowing to vote for Mr. Bush.
I think Mr. Perot despises the Bush people so much that he deliberately withdrew on the last day of the Democratic Convention, praising the revitalization of the Democratic Party, so as to give an extra boost to Mr. Clinton. The result is that Clinton-Gore start off with a whopping lead over Bush-Quayle, assuming Vice President Quayle is not dumped.
The pundits and the Republicans are pointing out that in 1980 Ronald Reagan overcame a big Jimmy Carter lead, and that at this time four years ago Michael Dukakis had a 17-point lead on George Bush, who roared to a landslide victory.
But we must remember that Mr. Carter not only was burdened by his inability to get American hostages out of Iran; he was presiding over a sick economy. This time it is Republican Bush who presides over an economy that is dying, as compared with the ills of 1980.
Can a ''failed president'' whose policies have left 10 million Americans out of work overcome a 23-point deficit in the polls in a troubled society that clamors for ''change''? Can Mr. Bush overcome a situation where Mr. Clinton's favorable rating has soared from 41 to 59 per cent, while the Arkansas governor's unfavorable rating has dropped from 49 to 29 percent?
I heard one commentator say that, with Perot out, the Democratic ticket is ''no longer competitive in the South -- they can concede Texas and Florida to Bush.'' That is ''cliche wisdom'' that does not know the force of the regional pride of Southerners in two celebrated sons from Arkansas and Tennessee and does not factor in the newly impassioned votes of women, blacks, Hispanics, yuppies.
Mr. Perot has given Americans a traditional two-party contest. But in his brief flirtation with candidacy he has affected the electorate in ways that make the Democrats favorites to win -- not by the huge majorities the polls now suggest, but a small victory for a party that has known little but defeat for a generation.
Do not be surprised if at a strategic moment Mr. Perot endorses the Clinton-Gore ticket.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.