THE primaries now over, America's three major presidential candidates finally square off in the most unpredictable, and perhaps the most troubling, national election in modern times.
President Bush, who seemed a shoo-in for his second term only a year ago, will be battling in the next five months for his political survival.
Nationally, the president trails independent challenger Ross Perot in some polls. In the West and South, both of which are traditional Republican strongholds, Mr. Bush apparently lags behind both Mr. Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton.
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Experts are divided on what happens next. Political consultant Keith Frederick suggests that Perot, like other independent candidates, will wither away, and be fortunate to get 10 percent of the vote by the November election.
Perot calls this "the morning glory theory" that he will "wilt." He rejects that, warning that Bush and Governor Clinton "ain't seen nothin' yet."
Pollster Del Ali of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research says he thinks Perot may be right. Every time experts predict that Perot has peaked, the Texan climbs another 5 or 10 points in the polls, Mr. Ali observes. The Perot campaign seems to be breaking new, uncharted political ground, and "all bets are off," Ali says.
Not since the early 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt mounted the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party challenge, has there been such a political free-for-all as now. The lessons of the earlier Roosevelt challenge may be ominous for Bush, for Roosevelt split the GOP vote in half and handed the victory to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
This week, although Bush swept the final six state primaries, including the largest in California, experts say his campaign has failed to catch fire.
Political scientist Earl Black, who only a month ago expected Bush to easily carry the South, now sees the rapid rise of Perot threatening the president, both there and in the West. Of Bush's lackluster campaign so far, Dr. Black says: "This has been Bush's race to lose from the beginning, and he may well throw it away."
Like a number of other analysts, pollster Ali worries that the three-way race also poses a serious challenge for the American election system, a view shared by former Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.
Ali suggests that, because Bush, Perot, and Clinton are running neck and neck, no one may get a majority, either in the popular vote or in the Electoral College.
Under the United States Constitution, such a result would throw the election into the House of Representatives - something that hasn't happened in over 116 years. How would the public respond, Ali wonders, if Clinton finished in last place but was put into the White House by the predominantly Democratic House?
Mr. Tsongas makes a similar point. Interviewed on CNN, he says that if it goes to the House, "then you have a real constitutional crisis." Not only would no one have gotten a clear-cut victory, but it would be possible to have a president "who didn't come in first. And I think that is a dilemma that we should really be concerned with," Tsongas says.
Black says: "If Perot wins the election with just 35 percent of the vote, how does he govern? What kind of mandate can he claim? The same holds true for Bush and Clinton."
Perot wasn't officially entered in any of Tuesday's six state primaries, but he stole much of the glory that would ordinarily have belonged to Bush and Clinton this week. From New Jersey to Ohio to California, exit polls showed that the electorate was badly divided, with Perot drawing heavily from both Republicans and Democrats.
Talking to thousands of voters as they emerged from the polls, interviewers found that in California, for example, 40 percent of the Republicans who voted for Bush would really have preferred Perot if he were on the ballot.
California Democrats held similar views, with 34 percent vowing to pick Perot in November rather than Clinton.
Mary Matalin, deputy campaign manager for Bush, plays down such poll results. "They'll come home," she predicts of these dissident Bush voters, adding: "The voters do not know Ross Perot. All they know is what he isn't" - a politician.
Mickey Kantor, campaign chairman for Clinton, says the strong support for Perot shows that voters are rejecting "politics as usual." Perot has managed to capitalize on a desire for change, and at the moment he is seen as the major agent of change in this election, Mr. Kantor says.
Ms. Matalin admits that Perot adds an element of uncertainty to this race. She says that with Perot running strongly, it would be a 50-state contest, with the candidates unable to take any state for granted as they would in an ordinary election year.