ROSS PEROT is confounding the experts.
"It's really amazing," says Earl Black, an authority on Southern politics.
"Astonishing," says David Gergen, a magazine editor and former official in the Reagan White House.
"Remarkable," say Mervin Field and Mark DiCamillo, two California pollsters.
Without running in a single primary, Mr. Perot has leaped to the front of the presidential sweepstakes. His two-month sprint into first place has people scratching their heads, and asking:
Could Henry Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire businessman, become the next president of the United States?
Perot's stunning rise could be seen Thursday in California, where the latest statewide poll by the Los Angeles Times showed him getting 39 percent. Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, had 26 percent, and President Bush had skidded to third place with just 25 percent.
Another survey by Mr. Field and Mr. DiCamillo finds Perot drawing support from across the entire political spectrum.
Perot runs strongly with both Democrats and Republicans, with whites, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and blacks, with rich and poor, with conservatives and liberals, with PhDs and high school dropouts, with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews.
He is Mr. Everyman.
The latest nationwide polls show Perot either out in front, or gaining. A CNN/Time Magazine poll gives Perot 33 percent, Bush 28 percent, Governor Clinton 24 percent. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds Bush at 35 percent, Perot 30 percent, and Clinton 27 percent. Skeptics doubtful
However, as the cries of "Ross for Boss" rise across the land, skeptics remain doubtful about Perot's long-range chances.
Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says history points to a rocky path for Perot.
"There has never been an independent candidate who won the presidency," Mr. Hess observes. "I simply don't see any way that he could win."
Hess explains that without "some cataclysmic reason, like the coming of civil war" or an economic collapse, voters don't break historical patterns.
"This is not a depression," he notes.
Although people are generally unhappy with both President Bush and Governor Clinton, Hess predicts that, in November, the public will "hold its nose" and support either Bush or Clinton.
Dr. Black, who writes on Southern politics from his post at the University of South Carolina, (at Columbia) says: "We've never had someone who is not identified with a major political party succeed as an independent. Historically, these candidates have always tended to fade."
Black concludes: "This is still George Bush's election to lose."
Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster known for his prescient predictions, also says it is "unlikely" there will be a President Perot in 1993.
Mr. Darden says Perot's strength is really a manifestation of Clinton's weakness. The governor is not a viable candidate, Darden says, and this creates an unnatural vacuum which Perot is temporarily filling.
Bush also helps Perot because of the president's weak handling of the economy, and because voters aren't convinced Bush stands for anything, Darden says. But once the campaign starts rolling this summer, Perot will falter, Darden predicts. New car smell "Right now, Perot has a new-car smell to him," Darden explains. "But by November, that new-car smell will be long gone. We're going to find out more and more about him."
Out in California, political commentator David Chagall has a similar view.
"Once the electorate and the press start focusing on Perot, he is going to come down to size somewhat," Mr. Chagall says. "At the moment, Perot mirrors the fear and anger that are out there about the economy, global competition ... and the future."
He continues: "I have never seen an electorate that was so fearful about what the future holds for America. They think we are going down the toilet-bowl of history. Perot is capitalizing on that." Free ride for Perot
So far, the press has given Perot a free ride, Chagall observes. But soon reporters will begin demanding that he answer the hard questions, like how the budget should be balanced.
"Right now he's really a blank slate, letting people read into him what they want to," Chagall says. "Once he is forced to confront the tough issues, ... I think you will find a guy being brought down to earth and a lot more human. Now he is as big as a myth."
Yet Perot keeps gaining. Tuesday exit polls in Oregon found even among Republican voters for Bush, 40 percent said they preferred Perot.
At least one expert refuses to discount Perot's prospects. Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego), says that if the Texan spends $100 million or more in his campaign, anything could happen. It's too soon to tell how strong Perot might be in November, says Dr. Popkin.
"It all depends on whether people are so disgusted with Clinton and Bush that they assume a rank outsider is the answer," he says.