'AMERICA is hungry for leaders," says Ole Hansen. That's why the Tennessee computer repairman spent $500 and took a day of vacation to attend last weekend's United We Stand America conference here.
Not that he looked for leaders among the lineup of Democratic and Republican speakers. As his "Perot in '96" button indicated, Mr. Hansen came to urge billionaire Ross Perot to seek the presidency again, this time at the head of a new political party.
Whether he will or won't is the subtext that flowed through the three-day meeting here and will continue to be a major plot of the 1996 campaign. Mr. Perot is characteristically circumspect about his intentions.
For now, he says, he wants to work to rejuvenate the two parties rather than form his own, and he seems to be enjoying his self-appointed status as national powerbroker and provocateur.
Many of his followers, though, have more set ideas about what he should do. "We're watching the clock. We're keeping our powder dry," says Dick Toliver, a high-ranking UWSA executive.
The possibility of a Perot bid agonizes Republicans. They fear a repeat of 1992, when his candidacy divided conservatives and put Bill Clinton into the White House with only a plurality of votes, says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana. But Mr. Lugar, a presidential candidate, says polls show GOP front-runner Bob Dole would have trouble beating President Clinton even in a two-way race.
Republicans must find "a lot more strength," the senator predicts. UWSA support will be "crucial." And so the two major parties paid court to 3,000 mostly white, middle-aged or older UWSA members in the frostily air-conditioned Dallas Convention Center.
Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, embraced UWSA members as "my fellow revolutionaries." Presidential representative Mack McLarty applauded them "for seeking solutions rather than just pointing fingers at problems."
But it was really Perot, the lodestone for some 19 million voters, who drew the party names. "Ross Perot made it happen," says Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Who else could have?"
Recent polls show why the major parties are concerned he may form a third party. An all-time high of 76 percent of Americans distrust government. And 62 percent believe that the two-party system has failed. A UWSA executive adds that most members want a new party, according to an unreleased survey by the organization. They were plenty evident at the conference.
"I don't understand the idea of having all these senators - the ones who put us in the trouble we're in - come speak to us. It's putting the fox in charge of the henhouse," complains Frank Conrad, who helped found the New Jersey Conservative Party.
Mr. Conrad mostly shunned the conference, preferring to hang out at room 618 of the Hyatt Regency. There UWSA members from a dozen states including Texas, California, and Illinois plotted an alliance of new parties formed at the state level. "We're not talking about a national party - yet," said New Jersey's Tom Blomquist as UWSA members swapped ideas and munched snacks.
Mr. Blomquist was the quickest to respond last spring to noises from UWSA's Dallas headquarters about forming a third party. He recruited enough candidates from UWSA to contest 66 seats in the New Jersey legislature this fall under the Conservative Party. Already the party has a slate of candidates for 1996's US Senate and 13 congressional races. "They're laying the tracks that they hope Perot will ride in on," says Norris Clark, UWSA's director in New Jersey.
Perot claimed he would found a "world-class" party if Congress passed the GATT treaty without fully explaining it to the public. But Congress called his bluff, in effect, and Perot has backpedaled ever since. Many members understand why when they learn what it takes to found a party.
"Time, money, a message, and candidates," explains Michael Farris, a California member. "Even though we have a pretty good message, the other three we are lacking at this point."
Florida director Pat Muth says forming a national party to run candidates from the mayoral level to the White House would cost $1 billion. "We don't get big dollars," she says. "That's why we're interested in whether the two-party system can be revitalized."
Members don't expect Ross to open his wallet. But some wish he would. "We know the people want [a new party]," says Nicholas Sabatine of the UWSA spinoff Patriot Party. "The problem for us is we don't have any billionaires to run it."
But Perot has never ruled out a third party and/or running for president again. The key is timing, Mr. Toliver says.
"People say, 'Why doesn't Ross go ahead and throw his hat into the ring?' That would be less than astute," he says. UWSA would lose its nonprofit status if it converted itself to a party. And it would lose influence over the positions of the existing parties.
Perot tried to wield that influence during the first day of the conference. A parade of Republicans and Democrats had sounded similar themes of returning power to the people and reforming government.
Hearing calls from both parties for campaign finance reform, Perot suggested that Congress put the measure into a "second, bipartisan Contract With America" and adopt it this fall.
Among the GOP presidential candidates, Pat Buchanan drew the most enthusiastic response. "Dole was flat and Gramm said nothing new," says Barbara Johnson, a nurse from Los Angeles.
Kansas farmer Niles Gibson shouted "NAFTA" during Dole's speech. The senator supported the treaty UWSA members widely despise. "If it's Dole vs. Clinton, I don't know which way I'd vote," he says. Dole would "ride the big-money boys just like Clinton."
And if Perot joins the race? "I'll do whatever Ross Perot says. Yes, I think Ross Perot is a dictator. But you've got to have strong leadership," Gibson says.
Forming a new party, Toliver says, hinges on whether Congress passes campaign finance reform and on whether the two parties adapt to other UWSA positions.