BOSTON — Ever since Ross Perot captured almost 1 in 5 votes in the 1992 presidential election, third parties entered a new era of viability.
This year an unprecedented six presidential candidates are on the ballot in enough states to win the election, mathematically speaking. Besides President Clinton and GOP challenger Bob Dole, they are Mr. Perot (Reform Party), Harry Browne (Libertarian Party), John Hagelin (Natural Law Party), and Howard Phillips (US Taxpayers Party).
True, no third-party or independent candidate has ever won a US presidential election. Some political analysts maintain, too, that the momentum third parties gathered four years ago has stalled in '96.
"For third-party candidates to succeed, there needs to be a yearning in the general public for change," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Still, these candidates are getting more expert at working the media - and they're gaining more exposure. Blocked from the presidential debates, Messrs. Hagelin, Phillips, Browne, and Ralph Nader of the Green Party held their own debate on CNN's "Larry King Live."
Third-party candidates are also better funded these days, according to political watchers. The Libertarian Party, for example, has raised more than $3 million to date. But these figures seem like pocket change compared with the $62 million Dole and Clinton can spend, meaning no four-star hotels or private jets for these third-party crusaders (with the exception, perhaps, of billionaire Perot). Indeed, Hagelin tells of spending the night on a bed in a basement of a supporter's home.
ROSS PEROT RIDES AGAIN
Reform Party, founded 1996
Party's leading platform: Restore public faith and trust in the federal government
Previous affiliation: Republican
Vice president: Pat Choate, former economist at the United States Department of Commerce
On the ballot in 50 states
Ross Perot's run for the White House this year looks a lot like his 1992 effort. Same economic charts, same type of TV spots. His issues are the same, too: a balanced budget amendment, campaign finance reform, and term limits.
The difference is what's at stake after Nov. 5. Whereas the Texas businessman ran as an independent candidate in '92, this time he heads the ticket of the new Reform Party - and its future may be inextricably linked to Mr. Perot's showing on Election Day.
"In '92, as an independent candidate, there was no institution that lived on past the election," says Russell Verney, Perot's senior political adviser. "This year, with the creation of the Reform Party, if we get more than 25 percent of the vote ... there will always be a third choice on the ballot."
If that happens, the party not only will be eligible for $62 million in federal funding (the same amount Republican and Democratic presidential candidates get), but it will also be able to afford to field other candidates for federal and state offices. Perot received 19 percent of the vote in '92.
Perot has qualified for - and has accepted - $29 million in federal campaign funds. By taking the money, he is limited to spending $50,000 of his own money, compared with the $62 million he spent in 1992.
Polls show Perot with only 5 or 6 percent of the vote. But Mr. Verney says that "much of the support that Ross Perot enjoys around the country is people who are not frequent voters. So they don't show up in the polls."
The Reform Party platform is identical to the positions espoused by United We Stand America, the citizen action committee Perot founded soon after the '92 election.
*Require high ethical standards for the White House and Congress.
*Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment, and develop a blueprint to balance the budget. Eliminate the practice of keeping some programs off-budget.
*Reform campaign-finance laws. Shorten the election cycle to no more than four months. Replace the Electoral College process for electing the president with a direct vote from the citizens. Require members of Congress to raise all campaign funds from the voters in their districts and members of the Senate to raise all funds from the voters in their states. Hold elections on weekends.
*Enact term limits. Limit representatives to three terms in office and senators to two.
*Reform lobbying practices. Prohibit former elected and appointed federal officials from ever taking money from foreign governments or foreign interests. Domestic lobbyists should be prohibited from giving money, trips, or other incentives to members of the executive and legislative branches and other federal employees.
*Eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and create a paperless tax system. Hold a national referendum to let the voters decide what system is best. Require any future tax increases to be approved in a federal election.
"We have good people trapped in a bad system," Verney says. "We just have to change the system from without."
Perot, a Texas native and US Naval Academy graduate, is founder of Electronic Data Systems, a multibillion-dollar data-processing company that employs more than 70,000 people. His net worth is at least $3 billion.
BROWNE HITS INCOME TAX
Libertarian Party, founded 1971
Party's leading platform: Cut federal government down to constitutional size
Previous affiliation: Republican
Vice president: Jo Jorgensen, owner of a computer software company in Greenville, S.C.
On the ballot in 50 states
"Would you give up your favorite federal program if it meant you never had to pay income tax again?" Harry Browne calls it his "great offer," and he's putting the question to anyone and everyone along the campaign trail.
An investment adviser who made a fortune in the business of predicting economic ruin, Mr. Browne is the Libertarian Party's candidate for president.
His party's platform has two planks: Cut the federal government out of all areas the Constitution does not explicitly provide for, and repeal the federal income tax, using existing tariffs on foreign goods to pay for remaining government functions.
"The question is not what government should do, but how can we reduce it to the absolute minimum possible," says the Tennessee businessman. "There is no authority in the Constitution for the [federal] government to be involved in welfare, education, health care, agriculture, housing, transportation, crime control, and regulation."
Among the party's main issues:
*Cut federal spending to its lowest level possible.
*Abolish Social Security and set up guaranteed annuities with private insurance companies for current collectors. To pay for the annuities, sell off government assets - federal land, power companies, unused military bases - which he estimates to be worth $12 trillion.
*End welfare, leaving care for the poor to churches, charities, and foundations. Americans who didn't have to pay income taxes would have more money in their pockets to support these groups, Browne says.
Eliminating the tax burden would check many of America's social problems as well, he says. "When parents can afford to have one spouse stay at home and raise the children in the values they believe in, you're bound to have fewer teenage pregnancies ... and fewer kids turning to drugs, tobacco, or alcohol."
He frowns on gun control and NAFTA, supports legalizing drugs, and would end a federal role in abortions, leaving any financial or regulatory concerns to the states.
Browne is quick to distinguish himself from Perot. "Perot says he wants to look under the hood and tinker with the engine. I want to throw out the engine and replace it with a much smaller motor."
Born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, Browne gained attention in the 1970s with bestsellers predicting runaway inflation, a deep recession, and a monetary crisis. His current fee as an investment adviser: $500 an hour.
He was formerly a Republican but says he didn't vote between 1964 and 1994. A self-described "philosophical Libertarian since 1961," he didn't join the party until 1994.
In the last presidential election, the Libertarian Party got less than 1 percent of the vote. But Browne says he believes that the backlash against "big government" could make this a breakthrough year.
PHILLIPS DECRIES ABORTION
US Taxpayers Party, founded 1992
Party's leading platform: Reduce the size and spending of the federal government; ban abortion, without excception
Previous affiliation: Republican
Vice president: Herbert Titus, a Virginia attorney
On the ballot in 39 states
A two-time Nixon administration appointee, Howard Phillips is making his second run for the White House with the US Taxpayers Party.
Of the leading third parties, the four-year-old organization is perhaps the most conservative. In some ways, its ideology mirrors that of the Libertarians: Reduce the role of the federal government and bestow power on the states. Yet its platform includes some issues that set it apart, particularly abortion:
*End legalized abortion with no exceptions. Under the Fifth and 14th Amendments, Mr. Phillips says, no person should be deprived of life without due process of law, and the party maintains that an unborn child is legally a person.
*Cut government by about two-thirds. "The federal government in terms of dollars spent and regulatory impact is headed in the wrong direction," Phillips says. "So we would cut it back to constitutional proportion," meaning no US role in areas such as welfare, education, or foreign aid.
*Repeal the federal income tax and replace it with tariffs on foreign goods. He would also propose legislation to abolish the Internal Revenue Service.
*Withdraw from "the new world order." The party would call on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and to urge the UN to move out of the country. It would also remove support from all international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The party appears to be stronger today than when it debuted in 1992. Then, Phillips garnered only 50,000 votes. He expects to raise $2 million by Election Day. In a major coup, the New York State Right to Life Party endorsed Phillips over Dole - a nod the group gave to President Bush in '92.
Phillips's political career dates back to his days in Boston, where he was born and raised. The year he entered Harvard University, he managed a campaign for a Republican candidate who, running against Tip O'Neill, "had even less prospect for immediate success then than I do."
Later, he headed two federal agencies - the Office of Economic Opportunity and the President's Council on Youth Opportunity - under President Nixon. But in 1974 he defected from the party, disgusted by what he says was a Republican penchant for talking a conservative line but voting like liberals.
A close friend of GOP maverick Pat Buchanan, Phillips and other party officials had hoped Mr. Buchanan would become their standard-bearer after losing the Republican nomination to Dole. For Phillips, his own candidacy is an effort to build for the future.
"I think we will surprise some people, not just on Nov. 5 but in the years that follow," he says. "We really have a momentum attracting people who at one time would have gone into the Republican Party."
HAGELIN APPLIES SCIENCE
Natural Law Party, founded 1992
Party's leading platform: Holistic and prevention-oriented government
Previous affiliation: Republican
Vice president: Michael Thompkins of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa
On the ballot in 45 states
What qualifies a Harvard University-trained quantum physicist to run for president of the United States?
John Hagelin, the Natural Law Party's candidate, says 25 years of studying how the laws of nature govern the universe provide an "empirical" and "practical" approach to governing the country.
"Whatever happens in nature happens according to natural law," Mr. Hagelin says. "I'd like to bring some of that skill of nature's administration into the realm of human government through policies and programs that are in harmony with nature."
The Natural Law Party was founded to "bring the light of science into politics." Its platform is an agenda for holistic and preventive policies:
*Promote natural and preventive health-care measures. "We should empower people to take better care of themselves," he says. This would save hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare costs without taking away a single benefit, he says.
*End America's dependence on foreign oil. The country could become energy self-sufficient, he says, by developing its own renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power combined with technology.
*Set a goal to balance the federal budget by 1999, and implement a flat tax with "generous exemptions" for the working poor. The rate would start at 18 percent and drop to 10 percent by 2002. He would finance the tax cut through the savings in Medicare and energy costs, as well as through an increase in revenue generated by higher economic growth from lower taxes.
*Replace current agricultural practices with natural, sustainable practices to increase crop yields without pesticides.
*Improve education by implementing programs to develop a student's creative genius. Hagelin would replace the US Education Department with a Department of Education Excellence. He would also use federal dollars to fund a dozen "model schools" that would be examples for the rest of the country.
Hagelin favors gun control, school vouchers, legal immigration, and welfare reform with work incentives. He opposes government regulation of abortion.
Four years ago, the Natural Law Party did not exist. It was founded in May 1992 by a group in Fairfield, Iowa - home to Maharishi International University, where Hagelin is a physics professor.
This is Hagelin's second run for the White House. In 1992 he received fewer than 50,000 votes. His '96 campaign has raised more than $2 million and qualified for $750,000 in federal matching funds.
While he hopes his party makes gains in the future, Hagelin says he'd be satisfied to see one of the larger parties absorb his platform. "That would be a graceful way to die."