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POLITICS : Strategists Hoping Nov. 8 Becomes Dawn of Independents' Day : There's a bumper crop of third-party candidates this fall. Campaign organizers say the trend could lead to an electoral realignment in 1996.

October 28, 1994|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Mounting voter discontent with both political parties is boosting independent candidacies in this midterm election campaign and signaling the potential for far-reaching political realignment in 1996.

The number of independent and third-party candidates for the House, Senate and governorships around the country is higher than for any off-year election since the recession year of 1982. While few of these insurgents are likely to prevail, some organizers--inspired by the big presidential vote for Ross Perot in 1992--are hoping to use the experience and support to spark another independent bid for the White House in 1996.

Perot veterans are planning a campaign built around procedural reforms aimed at the center, while another possible independent bid for the White House looms on the left from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has said he is considering such a move because of President Clinton's failure to live up to his liberal campaign promises. A recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press indicated there is even more support for a new party among liberals than among moderates who backed Perot.

The combination of two independent candidacies in 1996--one from the center and one from the left--could splinter the electorate and transform the American political scene, a shift that proponents of the independent candidacies believe is just what the voters want.

"If nearly 20% of the people voted for Perot in 1992 after he showed himself to be totally incapable of being President, my feeling is if we ran somebody who was really qualified, we could do even better," said Nicholas Sabatine, who led Perot's drive in Pennsylvania and is now chairman of the Patriot Party, an offshoot of the Perot movement.

The goal is to be assured their candidates get spots on ballots in all 50 states by 1996, Sabatine said.

As they themselves acknowledge, Sabatine and others with similar ambitions face enormous obstacles in mounting a credible bid for the White House. They need to organize grass-roots support, gain ballot access and, perhaps above all, find a candidate.

This fall, the Patriot Party is fielding gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania and Alaska. Two allied groups, the American Party in Oregon and the Independence Fusion Party in New York, both drawing heavily from the ranks of Perot supporters, also are running candidates for governor in their states.

Pathways of American political history are littered with the bones of third-party movements that either died aborning or soon fizzled. The 19% of the vote Perot got in 1992 was the largest third-party share since ex-President Theodore Roosevelt got 27% on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912.

For a third party to become competitive, says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, it has to find a candidate who is either "fabulously wealthy," like Perot, or already famous and respected.

Among the names being bandied about by veterans of the Perot movement, according to Gordon Black, erstwhile Perot pollster now active in the Independence Fusion Party, are former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, 1992 Democratic presidential contender Paul E. Tsongas, former Republican Sen. Warren G. Rudman of New Hampshire and Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., an ex-Republican who won the governorship as an independent in 1990.

Third- and fourth-party proponents are encouraged by polls registering rising levels of voter disgust with major parties and alienation from the political system. A survey taken last summer by the Times Mirror Center showed that 53% of those interviewed wanted a third major party, a jump of nearly 10% since 1982.

"This means more than just the fashionable gobbledygook that polls sometimes reflect," says David Gillespie, Presbyterian College political scientist and author of "Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two Party America." "These results basically say that the American people are no longer committed to a two-party system."

One reason for the declining loyalty to the major parties, according to Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, is the negativism that now dominates election campaigns and other political debate.

"For the past 20 years, both sets of politicians, Democrats and Republicans, have been busy explaining to voters that other sets are a bunch of no-good scum," he said. "And each side has been so diligent at providing evidence that they have both succeeded."

Ginsberg and other analysts also say voter frustration has grown during two decades of divided government--when Republicans for the most part controlled the White House and Democrats dominated the Congress.

Even though the 1992 election ended divided government, inter-party antagonisms have hindered Democratic President Clinton's efforts to break the gridlock and have fueled insurgent candidacies.

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