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Third-Party Prospects

A WAIT-AND-SEE approach to Ross Perot's newly announced ''Independence Party'' would seem to be in order. He and his followers have blown hot and cold on whether to form a third party ever since 1992.

Given an Oct. 24 deadline to get on the California ballot, the Perotistas have their work cut out for them.

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A third party benefits Mr. Perot: It allows him to postpone a decision on whether to run, provides a ready platform for someone else - say, Colin Powell or Bill Bradley - to run on, and may provide an endorsement of a major-party candidate that could swing the election. Perot's United We Stand America is not organized as a party and can't make endorsements or campaign. Perot learned long ago that an organization of like-minded individuals is a more powerful voice than he alone.

More likely, however, Messrs. Powell and Bradley, well aware of the notable lack of success third parties have enjoyed in American presidential elections, won't bite. US presidents are elected by the electoral college, not the popular vote. It's true that Perot garnered more than 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, but he got zilch, zero, nada in the vote that counts. A political-party endorsement won't by itself change that. Historically, the third-party candidate with the best hope of winning elec tion was former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and even he could only manage a second-place finish.

Since the Civil War, third parties have usually split the Republican vote, sometimes handing the election to a Democrat, as in 1912. Perot's politics seem to track closely with what the Republican Congress is trying to accomplish. So, having given the election to President Clinton in 1992, he may decide not to repeat that feat next year.

Some have drawn parallels between Perot's new party and the GOP, which replaced the Whig Party last century. In 1856, the Republicans' first presidential election, Gen. John C. Fremont, a Mexican War hero, lost to Democrat James Buchanan. But in that case only two large parties contested the office.

Also of note this week is the entry of publisher Malcolm (Steve) Forbes Jr. as a Republican candidate. He joins Morry Taylor as the second millionaire businessman in the race. Mr. Forbes, who is already advertising, advocates a flat tax to replace the graduated income tax. But so do many of the Republicans already running, and he will have to do more to distinguish himself from them. His participation is welcome and sure to enliven the campaign, but his prospects for success, like Mr. Taylor's, appear s lim.

Aware of how poorly third parties have always done, Powell and Bradley likely won't bite.

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