MOVIEGOERS will remember the question that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kept asking each other about their tenacious pursuers: "Who are these guys?" George Bush and Bill Clinton must be asking themselves a similar question about Ross Perot, a political gunfighter from Texas whose dust keeps getting closer and closer: "Who is this guy?"
Tuesday's grand finale to the primary season (not to forget North Dakota's June 9 coda) should have been a high moment for Bush and Clinton. Each swept the field of six primaries, including major contests in California, Ohio, and New Jersey.
President Bush didn't need the delegates to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, but he had the satisfaction of completing an unbroken string of primary and caucus victories. Mr. Clinton did need Tuesday's delegates to sew up the Democratic nomination, and he won them convincingly, even in California, Jerry Brown's the home state.
How sweet it ... Who is this guy?
In fact, Tuesday's balloting was anticlimactic, and not just because the outcomes of the nominating races were already known. Much of the day's anticipated sweetness for Bush and Clinton was leached by exit surveys suggesting that both candidates would have garnered far fewer votes if Mr. Perot's name had appeared on the primary ballots. In the preferences of primary voters in both parties, Perot ran generally even with Bush and Clinton. These findings are consistent with recent national polls.
There can be little remaining doubt that the presidential contest will be a three-man race. It also appears that, unlike the third-party candidacies of George Wallace in 1968 and John Anderson in 1980, Perot's (still unannounced) candidacy will not be a morning-glory bid that blossoms in the spring only to wither in the summer heat.
True, Perot hasn't really felt that heat, yet, especially the sort generated by the national media. Also, he won't benefit from the publicity spikes that Clinton and Bush will receive from their parties' summer conventions. And a campaign staffed in large part by political neophytes with little in common besides anger at the system and a crush on Perot may not have the major parties' organizational and get-out-the-vote power needed for a national campaign.
Nonetheless, only the foolhardy would continue to dismiss Perot's chances, especially in a year when the party candidates carry so much baggage and generate so little genuine enthusiasm even among their backers.
It's time for all of us to ask, with redoubled seriousness, Who is this guy?