DALLAS -- The colorful political odyssey of independent candidate Ross Perot came to a close last night with the Texas billionaire vowing that, even with a third-place finish, this was "just the beginning" for his grass-roots political movement.
"We will keep on going as long as you want to keep on going," he told thousands of cheering supporters who gathered here last night at The Grand Kempinski hotel's Crystal Ballroom.
Flanked by his family, the Texas tycoon congratulated Democrat Bill Clinton on his victory, gave three Navy cheers to President Bush for his service to the country and vowed that his organization, United We Stand, America, would stay together and work "anywhere at any time to help the president."
After dancing with his wife and daughters to his new theme song, "Crazy," Mr. Perot told his supporters: "Forget the election, it's behind us. The hard work is in front of us.
"Spend about 10 minutes getting over the frustration that your candidate didn't win. Then take this enormous creativity and let's make this country work at every level. . . . The best is in front of us, believe me."
To shouts of "You're No. 1" and " '96," Mr. Perot left wide open the possibility that he would, indeed, be back in four years if the new administration didn't address the concerns of his followers.
"We've always got the safety valve, right?" he said. "You can bring that old stray dog out from the dog pen again."
With his support around 18 percent last night, Mr. Perot pulled in the largest percentage of votes of any independent or third-party candidate since 1924, when Robert M. LaFollette received 24 percent of the vote.
Even though it appeared he would win no electoral votes, he scored higher in the popular vote than John Anderson's 7 percent in 1980, higher even than George C. Wallace's 13.5 percent in 1968.
That alone was reason enough to celebrate last night.
Mr. Perot's running mate, Adm. James B. Stockdale, called the election a "historic moment in America."
Taking a swipe at the media, one of the Perot campaign's favorite targets, he added, "Ross showed you don't have to talk to [ABC newsman] Sam Donaldson to get on TV."
"This is a victory," said Perot volunteer Russell J. Verney, former executive director of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire. "It's a victory for all the millions of Americans who've said they've had enough of business as usual in Washington. I think Washington will never be the same after this campaign."
Indeed, it was perhaps only fitting for a campaign as quirky and unconventional as this one that an election night defeat had the look and feel of a resounding win.
"We've changed the course of political campaigning and I know darn well we got the attention of a couple of parties," said Orson Swindle, head of Mr. Perot's volunteer organization. "United We Stand will not die tomorrow. We plan to be a force in the political system."
Large TV screens on the walls of the hotel's chandeliered Crystal Ballroom showed the election returns through the night.
But the numbers were all but lost amid the Dixieland band, the red, white and blue balloons and bunting, the glittering confetti and streamers, the centerpieces of flags and firecrackers -- and, most of all, the feeling that the 62-year-old billionaire and his army of supporters had been heard.
"Regardless of what the final figures are, a very loud statement was made this political year about concerns in America," said Murphy Martin, Mr. Perot's media adviser and longtime friend.
"Mr. Perot made his point. He's a winner either way," said Karl Clauss, who worked the phone banks at Perot campaign headquarters. "He finally brought awareness into the campaign. That's been the real purpose here."
But the purpose last night, said Mr. Swindle, was merely to have fun.
This celebration for the Texas tycoon, who poured more than $60 million of his own fortune into his long-shot campaign, was pure, patriotic, all-American Perot -- hot dogs, peanuts and popcorn, ice cream, soft drinks and, to the dismay of many, no alcohol.
"If anybody has any leads on a margarita stand . . .," Mr. Swindle joked.
Mr. Perot's last-place finish doesn't necessarily reflect the monumental role the independent candidate played in this year's campaign since launching his unconventional White House bid in February on CNN's "Larry King Live" call-in show.
He not only galvanized voter dissatisfaction with politics as usual, but the businessman focused sharp attention on the national debt and led the way in making TV talk shows the popular campaign vehicles they've become.
Nor do the numbers reflect the intense fascination the electorate has had with this cowboy-style billionaire and his roller coaster ride through the political process.
As a political "outsider," the feisty Texan tapped a well of voter disaffection so great and so potent that, until derailing his own candidacy last summer, he posed a formidable threat to the two major political party candidates.
Millions of voters signed petitions to get him on the ballot in all 50 states, enticed by his straight talk, his refreshingly coarse edges, his promise to fix the nation's economic woes and his track record in business to suggest he could do it.
Astonishingly, by late May, in some polls more people said they'd favor Mr. Perot to lead the nation than either President Bush or Mr. Clinton.