REPUBLICAN candidates are already elbow-to-elbow in the early battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Bill Clinton is busy looking presidential as Democratic strategists plot his reelection run. As the race for the presidency begins in earnest, a big question remains unanswered: Will an independent candidate make run for the White House in 1996?
Ross Perot was a major factor the last time around, after all. His backers are now holding meetings around the country to measure interest in another third-party try. Committees to draft retired Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell -- enormously popular in national polls -- into an independent bid have also sprung up.
Mr. Perot didn't exactly have a wonderful time the last time he ran, however, and he may just be coyly acting the kingmaker. General Powell could be a formidable political presence, but his spokesman has indicated that the presidency is not something he has aspired to, and at this point an independent race on his part would be an enormous logistical challenge.
''It's a huge amount of work, and time's a'wasting,'' notes Susan Estrich, a University of Southern California law professor who managed Michael Dukakis's campaign in 1988.
A third party bid in '96 would likely be fueled by the same attitude that moved Perot voters in 1992: seething discontent.
According to a just-released bipartisan poll, voters' continued frustration and cynicism is shown by the fact that 23 percent still trust neither party.
This disenchantment is particularly strong in the south-central and Rocky Mountain states, notes the poll, which was conducted by the Tarrance Group, a GOP firm, and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Self-described Democrats tend to be among the most disenchanted.
''Voters remain frustrated with Congress and angry with politicans of both parties, and their loyalties are shallow,'' concludes the poll.
Conventional political wisdom holds that last time around, Perot's candidacy helped send George Bush down to defeat by attracting Republicans in disproportionate numbers. This belief has driven GOP leaders to try and publicly discourage Perot from making another run.
Last week House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said in a broadcast interview that ''the only person helped by a third party is President Clinton and the liberal Democrats.'' He was responding, in particular, to reports that the grassroots group founded by Perot, United We Stand America, has been holding meetings around the country to poll members on another third party run.
The group's director Russell Verney hit back at what he called GOP ''fear tactics.'' There are indications that a Perot bid might be a wash, in terms of drawing votes away from the major parties.
According to the Tarrance-Lake poll, adding Perot to a match-up between President Clinton and GOP frontrunner Sen. Bob Dole ''does little to change the equation.'' Clinton and Dole both drop 2 to 3 points, with Dole winning, 42 to 40 percent. Perot, in this poll, draws 11 percent of the voters.
Poll numbers this far in advance of the election may be only a general indication of trends. Many experts continue to believe that Perot, if he runs, would once again siphon primarily from the GOP.
Pressure from the media obviously irritated Perot in 1988, and he may not be willing to undergo such scrutiny again. He could be simply positioning himself to throw his still-considerable support to whichever party courts him the hardest. But there's little question he remains attractive to a large slice of the voting public.
''What happens if there's a third party? There's a great celebration at the White House, unless Colin Powell is at the head of it,'' says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
Powell an unknown quantity of American politics. Ideologically ambiguous, he appeals to voters who crave to have confidence in government again, Wayne says.
PERHAPS the most tantalizing political statement Powell has made came earlier this month in a talk at a Massachusetts college: ''I've checked the Constitution very carefully and you do not have to belong to a political party'' to run for president.
However, USA Today on Thursday said that Powell recently met with Republican Senator Dole and agreed to be Dole's foreign policy advisor. Republicans have long coveted Powell as a vice-presidential candidate for their '96 ticket.
Powell has hinted he'll be more explicit about his future in September, when his memoirs are scheduled to be finished. ''It's a very difficult transition from the military to political life,'' notes American University political scientist Allan Lichtman. ''Eisenhower was the last person to make that transition successfully.''
The harsh scrutiny of the media and loss of military-like control over his daily life would be only part of Powell's problem. If he ran outside the structure of the major political parties, Powell would have to raise tens of millions of dollars on his own.
Lacking the institutional structure of the Democrats, Republicans, and even United We Stand America, the retired general would have to cobble together a semblance of a political organization.
''To run for president, you not only have to have a thick skin, you almost have to have been planning to do it all your life,'' professor Estrich says.