ROSS PEROT'S weekend gathering in Dallas underscored the political facts of life in the 1990s: Two-party loyalties are wearing thinner than ever, and independents hold the key to national elections. It's by no means clear that Mr. Perot's United We Stand America has a firm grip on that key. His organization has been struggling of late, losing membership and influence. Perot himself has developed some pretty high "negatives" in recent opinion surveys.
But he and his followers remain the flagship for the so-called independent movement. The importance of that role was made clear by the political luminaries who trooped to Dallas to address the Perot faithful.
The homage-paying politicians wanted to establish common ground with the billionaire. That's positive, since many of Perot's issues deserve to be front and center: fiscal responsibility, stronger ethics in government, and reform of entitlements like Medicare.
Perot's work of defining issues and giving voice to those repulsed by partisan politics as usual could, despite recent organizational bumpiness, run far beyond next year's election. Consider the statistics generated by the "motor voter" registration program. Millions of new voters - mostly young, moderate-income, and mobile - are choosing "independent," defying past patterns of registration. They're not flowing into Democratic ranks, as some who opposed easier registration had assumed.
And surveys continue to show unprecedented distrust of established politicians and parties. Many Americans have doubts that last year's Republican "revolution" was the answer to their hopes for more responsive government.
So the stage may be set for another independent run at the presidency, whether by Perot himself or some other figure - with Colin Powell the magnet for most speculation.
Whoever carries the independent banner in the future, Perot's cry of "you own it" should have resonance, encouraging more Americans to put aside cynicism about government and get involved in changing it.