Maybe Even The General Can't Outflank The Two Party System

It was a fleeting moment, but to disgruntled Americans who view the established political parties as rotten to the core, it was sweet. For a few weeks in June, 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot led Republican incumbent George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in the polls.

Perot, of course, went on to talk himself out of a chance for the White House. But his legacy--an impressive 19% of the vote--inspires backers of a "third force" Presidential bid. Their new champion: retired General Colin L. Powell. Amid rampant cynicism with politics as usual, Powell looks tantalizing. He's a war hero, an African American whose bootstrap rise gives him appeal across racial lines, a fiscal conservative with moderate social views, and a man untainted by Washington's partisan stench.

There's only one problem with this dream candidacy. Powell's odds of winning as an independent or third-party candidate are only slightly better than Saddam Hussein becoming Emir of Kuwait. True, Powell-mania will build this fall as he blitzes through a national tour promoting his inspirational memoir. But campaign pros doubt Powell poses a potent threat if he eschews the party system.

While Americans voice strong support for an independent candidacy, they dislike casting protest votes. Just ask George Wallace in 1968 or John Anderson in 1980. Both were distant thirds. "The American mind has two [parties] as a limit," says Democratic pollster Claibourne Darden. "One of the major parties would have to disintegrate first."

Since Powell's stands on the issues are largely camouflaged, the idea of his unbeholden candidacy is more powerful than its reality. He represents a rejection of political careerism, ideological extremism, and partisan sniping. Widespread disgust with the status quo explains why Powell, with little organization, wins up to 28% of the vote in three-way matchups with Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) "Powell has tremendous appeal," admits GOP consultant James H. Lake, an adviser to California Governor Pete Wilson's Presidential campaign.

But history may be an insurmountable barrier. The last time a third party won was when the new Republican Party supplanted the Whigs, and their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, captured the White House in 1860. Since then, only one third-party candidate has even finished second: In 1912, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning as a Progressive, got 28% of the vote.

MIDDLE GROUND. Perot is flirting with another run, but pollsters believe he peaked in '92. And rights activist Jesse Jackson has hinted he may wage an independent campaign, though his left-leaning base seems too narrow. In contrast, early polls suggest Powell could approach Teddy Roosevelt's numbers. Yet Democrats and Republicans still command the support of at least 30% of the electorate apiece. So Powell would have to win the votes of virtually everyone in the middle to come out on top.

That sobering reality convinces top GOP operative Kenneth M. Duberstein, part of an informal kitchen cabinet of Powell advisers, that longtime independent Powell should run as a Republican--if he runs. Others float his name as a potential GOP Vice-Presidential candidate. But the General remains coy about his intentions.

There is, experts caution, one scenario for an independent winning in '96: The GOP nominates a far-right candidate, and Clinton is hit by new Whitewater bombshells or some other scandal. "Under those circumstances, I can see Powell winning," says Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. Barring that chain of events, Powell, Perot, and other heroes of the third force will remain bigger hits on the lecture circuit than at the ballot box.

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