As Labor Day approaches, it looks at first like American politics as usual: President Clinton is golfing in the Grand Tetons, taking time out for briefings on Bosnia, and generally trying to look--well, Presidential. GOP front-runner Bob Dole has rented a cottage in New Hampshire and plans a week of folksy politicking. On Sept. 1, the Kansan will launch his fall campaign with a "boatercade" on Lake Winnipesaukee, leading an armada of supporters from Weir's Beach to Wolfeboro while camera crews bob alongside. It seems like a traditional start of a traditional Presidential campaign.

But look again. Increasingly, there are signs of public discontent with Establishment pols such as Clinton and Dole, and unease with their parties. The President's support remains frozen at about the 43% plurality that elected him. No GOP challenger has caught fire with the electorate. And although voters triggered a revolution last November by booting Democrats out of power in Congress, new surveys find Americans disenchanted with the Republican regime.

"FULL MOON." The result, says senior Dole adviser Richard N. Bond, is the kind of gnawing uncertainty a mainstream campaign abhors. "People are still shopping for alternatives," Bond says. "There's the [Colin] Powell thing, the Ross Perot thing, talk that [retiring New Jersey Senator] Bill Bradley may run. It's the Presidential equivalent of a full moon."

A new poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press found that 26% of those surveyed now back the notion of an independent candidate, compared with 32% who favor Clinton's reelection and 35% who prefer a Republican. Says the Center's director, Andrew Kohut: "People are...critical of the Republican Hill leadership [45% disapprove of GOP policies, 38% approve] but don't see Democrats as an alternative."

That development is particularly galling for the Republicans. "Sure, we have all these bills whizzing to passage," frets Sal Russo, a GOP consultant in Sacramento. "But the public doesn't see progress on term limits and the Balanced Budget Amendment, two big things they care about." Adds GOP strategist William Kristol: "A huge amount depends on whether the first year of the new Congress is a success. If it is, we have a chance at building a stable governing coalition. Failure would produce dealignment, independent candidacies, and instability."

Actually, given Perot's '92 Presidential charge, that instability may already be at hand. The root cause: post-cold-war trauma over stagnant wages, corporate layoffs, and fraying morals. "The search for a national redeemer is a characteristic of a society under stress," says Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "In the Depression, Third Force movements popped up left and right. Today, we have a slower crisis fueled by the economic numbers." Among the portents:

-- The Big Crackup. While the Republicans are recasting themselves as a harder-edged, more conservative party, the Democrats seem to be imploding. The Democrats now control a minority of statehouses. And the party's congressional wing is in turmoil as centrists recoil at their liberal leaders. Boll Weevils such as Louisiana Representative W.J. (Billy) Tauzin and Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama have jumped to the GOP. Other centrists, such as New Jersey's Bradley, Oklahoma Senator David L. Boren, and Minnesota Representative Timothy J. Penny, have quit politics rather than defend a party they see as dominated by class-warfare rhetoric and the concerns of urban liberals.

"Politics is broken," Bradley said simply, in announcing his retirement on Aug. 16--while signaling his interest in an independent Presidential bid. Indeed, former Democratic insurgent Gary Hart and Colorado's former Governor Richard Lamm want to invite Bradley and other Third-Path thinkers to a Denver powwow in December to chart a political course that could skirt the major parties.

-- Powellmania. On Sept. 18, Retired General Colin L. Powell will kick off a national promotional blitz for his memoirs--a trip that looms as the Mother of All Book Tours. A fiscal conservative and presumed social moderate, Powell is the darling of many voters seeking to bypass the party system. (In an Aug. 19 ABC News poll, he won 31% support to Clinton's 36% and Dole's 27%.)

By the time Powell stops barnstorming, on Oct. 20, he will have dominated news coverage for a month and fueled renewed talk of an independent run. Says an aide: "He'll take a serious look [at politics] when the tour ends." In the meantime, Powell is consulting with top political operatives and has let a grassroots "Draft Powell" movement take shape. Washington entrepreneur W.

Ronald Evans says he has started a petition drive to put 200,000 signatures on Powell's desk by November.

-- Perot-noia. Although Ross Perot has turned hesitant about another Presidential bid, his movement may be more powerful without its controversial figurehead in the spotlight. Perot has given his United We Stand America affiliates the green light to put third-party offshoots such as New Jersey's Conservative Party, Oregon's American Party, and Wisconsin's New Party on the ballot. Says Rochester (N.Y.) pollster and sometime Perot adviser Gordon S. Black: "With 12 to 14 states having alternative political parties with ballot status and another 15 states where ballot requirements are low, you could get these groups together to field some form of Third-Force ticket next year."

Will all this ferment produce a viable alternative to Republicans and Democrats? Maybe not in time for the 1996 elections. But that's not to say the stress cracks in the established parties won't produce a rupture down the road. "The dominant parties have grown old and fat, but their institutional power remains great," cautions Paul Green, a political scientist at Governors State University in University Park, Ill. "Powell is the Third Force's best shot. But in reality, it would take Jesse Jackson's charisma, Ross Perot's money, and Bill Bradley's brains to transcend the obstacles to an independent run." Volunteers, anyone?

Rebirth of the Third Force

In this century, America's two-party system has gone virtually unchallenged--until the last 25 years.

1968 Alabama Governor George Wallace attacks the two parties for running "a Tweedledee and Tweedledum system." He lands on the Presidential ballot in all 50 states.

1980 Independent John Anderson briefly harnesses voter disgust to run neck and neck with incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger

Ronald Reagan. But his campaign fizzles, taking only 7% of the vote.

1992 Texas billionaire Ross Perot communicates directly with voters through televised talk shows and electronic "town halls." He stuns both parties by winning 19% of the vote.

1993 Colin Powell retires as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls show him to be one of the nation's most popular leaders.

Aug. 11, 1995 Perot's United We Stand America stages a mock nominating convention, drawing every GOP Presidential wannabe and White House emissaries.

Aug. 16, 1995 Democrat Bill Bradley announces he won't seek another Senate term, hinting at an independent run for the Presidency.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE