Washington -- Suppose you wanted to be president. Was there ever a better time to try? Only one key piece is missing, but when it falls into place we may well see presidential candidates swarming at us like fire ants.
The one rule in this speculation is that a serious presidential candidate must have a chance to win a plurality of the popular vote in next year's election. In a straight two-party race one candidate must get 50.1 percent of the vote, a difficult threshold without the organized help of a national party. Probably only the two major parties can easily dream such dreams:
2. Dole-Wilson. (Gov. Pete Wilson of California is pro-choice in a party where that position can hurt in the primaries but help in a general election.)
Now, a third-party candidate need only think, ''If the vote splits fairly evenly I can win with only 33.4 percent of the vote.'' What ticket might do that?
3. Perot-Boren. Ross Perot was running close to 40 percent in some 1992 polls before he dropped out, and is now running in the mid-20s. Former Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., is now the president of the University of Oklahoma and gave the keynote speech at the Perot extravaganza in Dallas this month.
The task gets easier. The next ticket would be serious if it can credibly claim 25.1 percent:
4. Powell-Bradley (''The General and the Jock''). General Colin Powell is already running above 25 percent in three-way polls with Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Former basketball star Bill Bradley seems to have cut ideological ties with his Democratic Party, and would like to be president.
It gets even easier. The next ticket need only claim a shot at 20.1 percent to gain credibility:
5. Jackson-Nader. Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader each have constituencies on the left and high visibility. Jackson ran for president twice, knows how it's done, and can get public attention without a huge campaign war chest.
A sixth team shoots for a pro jected 16.7 percent plurality:
6. Buchanan-Keyes. Conservatives Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes are both making waves. If the Republicans put a pro-choice candidate on their ticket, these pro-life fellows could carve out a niche -- if they can find some common ground beyond anti-abortion. Mr. Keyes is not an isolationist, protectionist or nativist.
Who would win? That depends largely on whether the plurality choice wins by a solid, nationally distributed margin (like Mr. Clinton's 43 percent in 1992), or if the tickets bunch up near the average. If no candidate gets a majority of the winner-take-all electoral votes of the states, the new House of Representatives will choose the new president. The next House is likely to be Republican.
This will not be a six-candidate race. Do not bet on a five-candidate race. Do not bet against four candidates. A race with at least three candidates is a likelihood.
All it takes to set the electoral avalanche in motion is one non-major party candidate, which reduces the threshold for a plurality popular winner from 50 percent to 34 percent in one swoop.
Do you want to be president? Now's your time. In a seven-candidate race you can win a plurality with 14.3 percent of the vote.
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''