MORE than a year ago, I asked Colin Powell whether he would consider running for president as an independent once his book was finished. Deftly, he replied with a question: The way the system works, how could one do that without a party organization and without Ross Perot's personal fortune?
Mr. Perot, that dealer of wild cards, may have come up with a solution to General Powell's problem - if he wants one. Unless Perot harbors the secret design of running himself - unlikely since that would present him as just another conniving politician - Powell is clearly the odds-on favorite among voters who call themselves independent.
While no independent or third-party candidate in history has ever won the presidency, the depths of alienation from the two parties make the prospects as good as they've ever been.
Indeed, Perot sees his party as becoming not a third, but a second party, perhaps in the kind of realignment that replaced Whigs with Republicans more than a century ago. Perot predicts the demise of one of the current parties, undoubtedly referring to the Democrats, who are in an advanced state of disintegration.
Will Rogers's quip, ''I belong to no organized party; I am a Democrat,'' isn't funny any more. In his quest for reelection, President Clinton has gone much further than President Nixon in 1972 in separating himself from his party.
Seeking that elusive place called the center, Mr. Clinton has embraced diluted versions of Republican policies on the balanced budget, welfare, Medicare, and tax relief, leaving congressional Democrats to fend for themselves. The retirement of seven Democratic senators - and Sam Nunn may soon make it eight - is in part a reflection of the dismay over a standard-bearer who has let the party standard trail in the dust.
WHEN Perot says voters are deserting their parties in such numbers that 62 percent can be considered independent, it may not be a great overstatement. Perot may not be much on cures, but he is pretty good at pulse-taking. There is no way of knowing whether he can invent a new party on television and actually make it fly, but he has tapped something in the body politic deeper than malaise and funk.
Whether or not Perot has opened the door for Powell, the presidential race suddenly looks a lot different today than it looked a week ago.