THIS seemingly never-ending, historically strange, and particularly contentious presidential campaign - as most of the voters appear to view it - is mercifully almost over. For the candidates, too, it had to have been an ordeal - their smiles and cheery comments to the contrary.
But while the final evaluation of who won and who lost must wait for the counting of votes, it is possible to single out one clear political achievement:
The man who looks more than a bit like Truman and sounds like Truman has reminded us of Truman by pulling off his own surprising comeback. That's Ross Perot, the feisty little Texan who in the last few weeks has made a major impact on the presidential race after dropping out back at convention time.
True, Mr. Perot soured this comeback with his unsubstantiated charges that Republican operatives had planned a smear campaign against his daughter. Yet just how well this outspoken and often irascible fellow would do remained the big imponderable in the election - it turned "the end game of this campaign," as New York Times reporter Robin Toner aptly put it, "into a very delicate affair."
In that same paper, an op-ed by David W. Moore, author of "The Superpollsters: How They Measure and Manipulate Public Opinion in America," charged pollsters with being unreliable because of "our way of measuring the firmness of voters' intent."
"We do not offer the option of `Unsure,' " he wrote, "and if voters indicate indecision, we press them for the candidate they lean to." In his view, this leads to polling results that are off the mark because they fail to register the degree of softness in attitudes of voters who may be persuaded later on to vote differently.
I'm persuaded by Mr. Moore's argument in great part because of my experience in past presidential years, going back to the '50s. I have always received a number of impassioned letters from readers complaining about something I've written concerning their favorite candidates. Yet this year I'm escaping this letter-bashing. It seems to me that this is just another sign that the allegiance of most voters simply isn't very strong this year. They wander around. They can't make up their minds.
But back to Perot and his impact. When he decided to reenter the race, his reemergence as a major player seemed almost impossible. Observers predicted single-digit, rather inconsequential voter support, at best. At first, the polls reflected this showing. But then, with what now is being perceived as a "winning" performance in the debates, the Perot campaign took off. It was he, not Bill Clinton, who became the real "comeback kid" of the campaign.
That Perot achievement will hold, it seems to me, even if many of Perot's backers decide today they would waste their votes by supporting him and opt for either Mr. Clinton or President Bush. This could make Perot a marginal participant in the final outcome. But should this come about, it seems to me that Perot has already made a significant, lasting mark in this election.
As the vote comes in, the "Perot factor" will be examined carefully by the experts on TV and the voters watching and listening to the results. How much did his presence in the race hurt Mr. Bush? How much did it damage Clinton? We will hear these questions propounded and chewed on.
Even though it seems highly unlikely (at this writing Perot doesn't seem likely to win electoral votes in any state), no writer should omit the possibility that he might pull off the upset of all time and win. That would keep the pundits busy for years, explaining how they called it wrong!
Perot has clearly shown that there are millions of Americans who are dissatisfied with government as it is and who have found this nonpolitician to be the right person to set things straight.
Pat Buchanan tapped some of this discontent earlier when he made the president look bad in the New Hampshire primary. But Perot was much more the kind of person these unhappy voters were looking for. Perot was a successful businessman. He didn't talk the double talk of politicians. He seemed to go straight to the heart of problems. He said he would get things done - "simply" - and they believed him. He was their man.