IN RECORD TIME, Ross Perot's Reform Party qualified to be on California's 1996 presidential ballot. A party that can register over 100,000 voters in less than three weeks is not likely to have any trouble getting official status in Ohio and Maine, which also require a new party to qualify for 1996 ballot status in 1995. As for Maryland and the rest of the states whose deadlines are well into 1996, that should be a piece of cake.
The impressive showing in California does not automatically make Mr. Perot's party what he predicts -- the successor to either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Getting on ballots is not even half the battle. Now comes the hard part. Winning enough popular votes to earn electoral votes, which are all that count. It's winner-take all, state by state, in the U.S. system -- a hurdle for any third party.
In 1992, Mr. Perot ran as an independent. He got 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide, from people like those registering as Reform Party members. But he got no electoral votes. Whoever is nominated by the Reform Party will probably have to double the popular vote of Mr. Perot to win electors.
Mr. Perot indicates someone other than himself will be the 1996 candidate. His skeptical critics scoff at that. They say he is still on the same ego trip that led him into the race last time. He is not about to devote all this time, energy and money to creating a new party, then step aside, they say. The skeptics are probably correct, but neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to be too sure about it.
It is not inconceivable that Mr. Perot has decided to be a kingmaker rather than a king, or that the dynamics of the Reform Party's first nominating convention next year will give it a life and will of its own. Were it to nominate a reformer with broader appeal than its founder -- say a Bill Bradley or a Sam Nunn, which is unlikely but not impossible -- 1996 would be a very different and interesting year.