ROSS PEROT'S decision to form a third party could fundamentally alter the 1996 presidential race - as well as the future makeup of Congress.
If the new party were to back a well-known figure as a presidential candidate - such as Colin Powell or Mr. Perot himself - it could siphon votes from the eventual Republican standardbearer.
At the same time, the Republican congressional agenda might receive a boost. Many of the major issues Perot trumpets, such as a balanced budget, are in line. with GOP congressional goals. The Democrats could get hit hard if it looks as if they are blocking these initiatives.
Mr. Perot said this week that he will organize his new political party in California, Ohio, and Maine in time to field a candidate for president next year.
All in all, the move could represent the most significant independent political force since Teddy Roosevelt ran for the White House as the Bull Moose candidate some 80 years ago.
''This is a replay of 1912,'' when Roosevelt captured nearly a third of the vote as an independent, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. ''Candidates of both parties will be threatened by an independent candidate with high name recognition and a strong party line. Everybody is threatened.''
Frank Luntz, a Virginia-based Republican pollster, is more specific. ''It's good news for Republicans in Congress, and bad news for Republican presidential candidates,'' he says.'' If the Perot vote hangs together in 1996, he says, ''it could legitimately decide 400 of 435 seats.''
PEROT won 19 percent of the vote in 1992, taking mostly from President Bush's base. But a Perot-backed presidential candidate could be even worse for Republicans this time around, Luntz says.
Now the Republican candidates for president know how Cinderella's ugly stepsisters felt when the glass slipper didn't fit and win them a prince.
Mr. Perot offered the slipper's political equivalent to the candidates by inviting them to his United We Stand America (UWSA) conference in Dallas last month. Apparently all the candidates were found wanting by Perot's standards.
The billionaire populist is still looking for the foot that fits, as his announcement Sept. 25 makes clear.
Only a month ago UWSA executives dampened speculation about forming a third party move by groaning over the difficulty. The groaning goes on - spokeswoman Sharon Holman says UWSA will have to ''work like dogs'' to get 890,000 petition signatures or 89,000 members to meet California's Oct. 24 deadline.
'''With the time quickly approaching, we decided to get on the stick and go forward,'' she says.
The move offers Perot a number of political advantages. First, it opens the door to a Perot candidacy without committing him to run. Had he chosen instead to mount an independent campaign, as he did in 1992, Perot would receive immediate intense scrutiny.
Reporters riffling through Perot's past may have played a role in his departure from and last-minute reentry into the 1992 race.
This time, keeping the options open keeps the pressure off Perot.
''We could theoretically throw our support to a Republican, a Democrat, Colin Powell, Sam Nunn, Ross Perot, or anybody else,'' says Don Torgersen, UWSA's Illinois director.
Second, formation of a third party might focus discussion on issues rather than Perot's prickly personality. It could also moderate some of the more conservative impulses of the Republicans.
''We are a centrist organization. We're going to drive the issues right down the center of the country,'' Mr. Torgersen says.
Third, Perot last month invited the Republican-controlled Congress to pass a second Contract With America, including such pet UWSA issues as campaign finance reform and a balanced-budget amendment. Now Perot may have more leverage to push his favorite themes.
''If Congress decides to act, maybe at the end of the year we'll reassess our position,'' Torgersen says.
For all its advantages, the attempt to establish the new party has risks. Failure would undercut the credibility of Perot as a bellwether for dissatisfied voters.
Still, both Luntz and Professor Baker say that Perot's move makes him a potential kingmaker - and the king may be a former general.
''Colin Powell has the opportunity to usurp [Perot's machinery] if he runs as an independent,'' Luntz says. ''He'd have the organization and the money.''