ROSS PEROT, the self-made billionaire, now seriously threatens both George Bush and Bill Clinton in the 1992 race for the White House.
Many political insiders, who once dismissed Mr. Perot's chances for the presidency, have watched his support spread like a prairie fire. "He's hotter than a burning stump," concedes John White, a former Democratic national chairman who, like Perot, hails from Texas.
George Christian, a Texan and former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, predicts that if Perot doesn't stumble, he could carry the Lone Star State against both President Bush and Governor Clinton. Pollster George Shipley, also from Texas, says some Democratic leaders from his region may dump Clinton, who is seen as weak, in favor of Perot.
Mr. Shipley, a Democrat, says at least three Democratic congressmen from Southwest states tell him they "are contemplating endorsement of Perot in the fall." He says two statewide officeholders in Texas, both Democrats, may also shun Clinton and back Perot.
Enthusiasm for Perot shows up in the polls. The Washington Post and ABC News poll, taken April 22-26, finds Perot gaining ground on both the major party candidates. Interviews with 784 registered voters nationwide gave Bush 36 percent, Clinton 31 percent, Perot 30 percent.
Equally alarming for the major parties was the latest poll taken by the Los Angeles Times in pivotal California. It gave Bush 33 percent, Perot 32 percent, Clinton 26 percent.
Shipley says Perot's greatest strength lies across the Sunbelt, particularly in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Florida, and Georgia. Other hotbeds of Perot activity include Virginia and North Carolina, he says. Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Ohio also show promise for the Texan.
Shipley says Perot is tapping into a historic mood shift in American politics this year.
"He very adroitly captures the anger that Americans feel toward politics as usual," Shipley says. "He symbolizes the reformation and reformulation of American politics. "
While some Republicans insist Perot will soon fade, as other independent candidates like John Anderson have done in recent years, Shipley calls that prediction "a White House fantasy."
He explains: "The more the White House tries to bash him, the more Perot will thrive."
Officially, Perot is not yet a candidate. His supporters are working in all 50 states to get him on the ballot, sometimes against heavy obstacles. In some states, Perot has accused Republicans of undermining his efforts to gain ballot access; but if true, the GOP is largely unsuccessful so far.
The Dallas Morning News reports this week that Perot already has met ballot requirements in 15 states: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.
He is close in Florida, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Montana, and New Mexico, and is actually on the ballot in Tennessee.
He's doing all this, even though he is less known than either Bush or Clinton, and spending little cash - so far. Eventually he promises to pour millions of his own money into the race to put on a "first-class" campaign.
Meanwhile, Perot makes the rounds of talk shows - from "Larry King Live" to "Face the Nation" to C-Span to (next Sunday) "Meet the Press."
Although Perot denounces politics-by-sound-bite, White says he clearly enjoys his TV appearances and handles them well: "He is a media delight, particularly television's, because he has good sound-bite answers."
Some Democrats are so impressed, they'd like to recruit him to head their own ticket.
Willie Brown, the Democratic speaker of the House in California, says that if Clinton falters before the national convention in July, Perot would be "the most natural place to go" for Democrats to find a candidate.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Mr. Brown pointed out that all of Perot's criticisms are aimed at Republicans and Bush. He interprets that posture by Perot as being "a solicitation for consideration" for Democrats to choose him as their nominee.
Brown himself has withheld endorsement of Clinton because he worries the Arkansas governor would lose to Bush.
Brown's views aren't unique. Writing in Tuesday's New York Times, magazine publisher Wick Allison suggests Democrats cancel their convention, and simply embrace Perot as their nominee.
Mr. Allison says Perot, while calling himself an independent, clearly endorses Democratic policies on abortion, gay rights, taxes, the deficit, free trade, and other issues, like the Persian Gulf war. Further, with his popular appeal, Perot could be the next Ronald Reagan - but this time with the prospect of reviving the Democratic Party.