LOS ANGELES — FOR three weeks, they canvassed malls, beaches, and swapmeets across the state. They made phone calls, put inserts in newspapers and stuffed mailboxes with flyers, urging voters to join in.
Now organizers for Ross Perot's ''United We Stand, America'' say they have cleared the first hurdle in the race to form a third party, which holds important implications for the '96 race, especially here in California.
But organizers have a long way to go before a third party president can appear on the ballot. There are still 49 states to tackle. And the ultimate impact of a third-party movement on American politics depends on the party's longevity and its ability to register candidates for local and state elections.
''There are 50 different legal thickets that this party has to wade through and fight to get itself up and functioning as a political party,'' says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. ''Yes, they have walked the first mile,'' he says, ''but it's the first mile on a trip from L.A. to New York.''
Organizers say they are up to the challenge. After declaring they had easily met the Oct. 24 deadline for placing the Reform Party on the 1996 presidential ballot in California, volunteers have turned their attention to launching similar drives in Ohio, Maine, Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Carolina.
''We have provided the vehicle for the next George Washington to have his or her name on the ballot and have funding to run for president without begging money from special interests,'' says Russell Verney, executive director of United We Stand, America, the political organization formed in the wake of Mr. Perot's 1992 campaign. He says the party will look to millions of people to contribute modest amounts so that only the public, not political action committees, will have influence on government.
A one-page summation of party principles is already circulating, including new ethical standards for government officials, the push for a balanced budget, campaign and tax reform, term limit proposals, lobbying restrictions, and new plans for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
But observers say it is unclear how nominees would be formally selected in the new party. ''At this point, anyone can say they are a candidate for the Reform Party and [members] have no legal authority to stop them,'' says Mr. Schier. ''The issue of how they can control that and become coherent as a party is still open.''
For now, the Reform Party says it will nominate only a presidential candidate for 1996 elections. Because of stricter qualifying regulations governing congressional and local candidates, members will for the time being lend party endorsements to Democrat and Republican candidates as chosen by member votes.
Richard Winger, a San Francisco-based expert on alternative political parties, says the true test of ultimate viability for the nascent party will be whether or not they can qualify to run candidates in US congressional races as well as in-state and local elections. ''Getting on the ballot as a third party for presidential contests is no big deal,'' says Mr. Winger noting that five candidates have succeeded in 15 years. Among them: John Anderson (1980), Lenora Fulani (1988), and Ross Perot (1992). But not since the Progressive Party in the 1920s has a third party been on the ballot for even half of US congressional races, he says.
THE Reform Party, however, does not even have a candidate for president. Almost no one thinks a figure of the caliber of retired Gen. Colin Powell would seek to run under the auspices of a Reform Party. Perot himself, who has bankrolled canvassing efforts, says he is not creating a new party to suit his own ambitions. But he has not ruled out becoming its candidate.
Whatever the pluses or minuses of the new Reform Party, many feel that without any announced candidates, their successful qualification is just more evidence of an American electorate unhappy with party politics as usual. And if Colin Powell announces soon as a Republican contender, they say, the current air of excitement could deflate like a squashed soccer ball.
But as happened when Perot grabbed 19 percent of the vote in 1992 a Perot or other Reform Party nominee could be a decisive spoiler in 1996. ''There is certainly a very viable scenario in which this party, if approved, draws enough Republican voters to hand California's 54 electoral votes to Bill Clinton, thereby handing him the election,'' says Mark DiCamillo, one of California's leading pollsters.
And some observers say a vastly different American political landscape could emerge if the Reform Party gets on the ballot nationwide. ''It is very possible that we may see the traditional two-party system change right before our eyes,'' says Stephen Bennett, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Cincinnati. Nationwide, 63 percent of Americans would like to see another major party, according to Mr. DiCamillo.
Before that can happen, the California registrations must be verified by the secretary of state, who has until Nov. 13 .