AS Seth Monaghan and 30 of his co-workers listened to independent gubernatorial candidate Angus King pound away at the two-party system's failure to give voters ``real answers,'' their heads began to nod in agreement.
Many of the young white-collar workers, listening to the speech in their company's lunchroom here, said they were impressed by Mr. King. But Mr. Monaghan, who voted for Ross Perot in 1992, went a step further.
``I would predict that in my lifetime there will be a third party that will come into politics,'' says Monaghan, who no longer supports Mr. Perot, but is still unimpressed with President Clinton and leading Republicans. ``I just don't think the Democrats and Republicans are providing the answers, and people want an alternative. The old choices aren't good enough.''
Two years after the strongest showing of an independent presidential candidate in 80 years, pollsters say Mr. Clinton and top Republicans have failed to win over the large block of independent swing voters that both sides consider crucial to this year's congressional races and the 1996 presidential campaign.
Perot fared best in Maine, narrowly beating George Bush by winning 30 percent of the vote. Nationally, support for Perot in recent polls is running at 20 percent. This is slightly higher than the 19 percent of the national vote he received two years ago. Recent polls also show that anger toward Washington has increased since 1992.
Efforts to launch independent political parties, led largely by former Perot supporters, some of whom say they no longer support Perot as a candidate, are under way in 38 states. The loosely aligned parties, called the Patriot Party in several states, held their first national convention in April and will make endorsements and field a handful of state and federal candidates this fall.
``We're not looking at Perot as the focus of everything. We want to run candidates for Congress now,'' says national Patriot Party chairman Nicholas Sabatine III of Wind Gap, Pa. ``We're just trying to make some noise this year - 1996 will be the time we can make a significant impact.''
One group of former Perot supporters is backing the campaign of independent and former Republican Attorney General Marshall Coleman in the high-profile, four-way race for the US Senate in Virginia. But Gordon Black, chairman of the newly formed New York Independent Party, warns that the fledgling parties are suffering from not having Perot's financial backing.
``The American people are willing to break from the two party system,'' says Mr. Black, a Rochester, N.Y. pollster, ``but the problem is you have to have the resources to present them with an alternative.''
Perot's campaign organization, United We Stand America, adopted a tax-exempt status in 1993 that prevents it from fielding or endorsing candidates.
``The [Perot] movement is really more interesting than the man,'' says Micha Sifry, editor of The Perot Periodical, a quarterly newsletter that tracks Perot and his supporters. ``I think the question is whether these different factions of Perot supporters can organize themselves and really have an impact.''
Even without the formation of a third party, independent swing voters play a crucial role in close elections and have led both parties to try to appear as the ``moderates,'' observers say.
A consistent set of political positions exists among Perot voters, and they ``would not take all liberal or conservative positions,'' says Ronald Rapoport, a government professor at the College of William and Mary who has done extensive polling of the group. He sees them as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, more men than women, more educated, and more active in local organizations and politics than other voters.
Mr. Rapoport says Perot voters are as unified on the issues as Republican and Democratic Party members and strongly support term limits, a balanced budget amendment, strict environmental regulations, access to abortion, and ``economic nationalism.''
But exactly how to win over this enigmatic and fiercely anti-Washington group remains a mystery. Some political observers caution that American voters have historically not been kind to third-party candidates and that Perot supporters may be overstating their influence.
``I could imagine conditions changing and a Republican candidate or Clinton, with some success in Congress, appealing to these people,'' said Thomas Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington. ``I don't think this is a firm block waiting to be seduced by some kind of third-party candidate.''