A RESURGENT Ross Perot has become the great imponderable of the 1992 campaign for the White House.
The Texas billionaire, lavishing millions of dollars on a TV blitz and hurling charges at President Bush, has grown substantially stronger since the final presidential debate. But the real test for Mr. Perot comes later this week, analysts say.
If Perot climbs past 20 percent in public opinion polls, his third-place campaign could suddenly look like a winner, and take off, some experts say. On the other hand, if Perot slumps a bit, his political appeal could rapidly dissolve, just as voter support did for independent John Anderson in 1980, and for Gov. George Wallace in 1968.
The Perot campaign says everything is moving up. "I think we have an excellent chance of winning this thing," says Orson Swindle, the campaign's executive director. "Mr. Perot becomes more credible with each passing day."
All this uncertainty about Perot has both President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton looking anxiously over their shoulders. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll now puts the president just 12 points ahead of Perot, while Governor Clinton runs 23 points in front of Perot.
Political scientist William Galston, who advises the Clinton campaign, compares Perot's colorful autumn election drive to a brilliant comet - with a cool core and a fiery tail.
The cool core, mostly Republican, is Perot's rock-solid base of support, and includes such people as Mr. Swindle, his executive director. These supporters rallied first around Perot, and will probably stay with him to the end, win or lose.
The fiery tail, mostly Democratic and independent, is Perot's volatile support, drawn to him recently by the debates and by his television programs. Their support is fragile. One mistake, and they could be gone.
"Perot's overall support is very weak, much weaker than the other candidates, so he has to hang onto what he has," says Larry Hugick, a Gallup pollster.
As Americans saw this week, Perot's impact goes beyond just winning or losing. His charge on Sunday that Bush's campaign planned to embarrass one of Perot's daughters, and disrupt her August wedding, distracted the president, and almost certainly boosted Clinton. While still well behind, Perot knows how to command the headlines.
But Dr. Galston says that if Perot continues to gain strength, it will be bad news for Clinton because many of those newest supporters would be drawn, however tenuously, from Democratic ranks. Conversely, if Perot sinks back toward 10 percent, Bush will be hurt, for Perot's solid core comes right out of the Republican Party.
Why all the uncertainty about what will happen? "This is uncharted territory," says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "We've never had a third-party candidate with these resources to spend."
Perot is shelling out millions for half-hour TV shows - "infomercials" - to spell out his solutions for America's problems, and to introduce himself and his family to the nation.
"I've laid $60 million on the table so you could have a voice in your country," he told a crowd in New Jersey this week. Perot's spending could even surpass the federally funded campaigns of Clinton and Bush.
The Texan is also being helped by the calendar.
David Moore, author of "The Superpollsters: How They Measure and Manipulate Public Opinion in America," says that, ordinarily, a fast-rising candidate like Perot would come under heavy fire from his opponents. And he would be the subject of long investigative articles by newspapers and television. But Perot's rise came so late, and so little time remains, that he might slip into election day with relatively few political bumps and bruises.
Stephen Salmore, a political scientist at Rutgers University, says Perot actually may be better off than if he had stayed in the race, rather than temporarily dropping out on July 16. "Would he really have been better off if he had stayed in during two tough months?" Dr. Salmore asks rhetorically. "Now he has the advantage that his message is fresh," and the media has little time to pick it apart.
Tracking polls show how quickly Perot has gathered strength. Less than one month ago (Oct. 1-3) Gallup reported that only 25 percent of American voters had a favorable impression of Perot. An overwhelming 61 percent had an unfavorable view.
The debates turned that around. By Oct. 23-24, Perot was viewed favorably by 53 percent, unfavorably by only 36 percent - a better ratio than either Clinton or Bush.
Meanwhile, both Bush and Clinton are suffering from the long campaign. Clinton's favorable/unfavorable rating is 49-42, several points less favorable since Oct. 1. Bush's rating is even worse, a negative 44-49.
Only five days remain, and Perot complains that his opponents will kick up a lot of "gorilla dust" to confuse voters.
These final days also will test two fundamentals of his unique campaign: his sharp focus on the national debt, and his singular reliance on TV to sway millions of voters.