COULD the party be over before it really began?
That's the question supporters of Ross Perot are asking themselves after their Reform Party failed yesterday to submit enough valid signatures to gain access to the 1996 ballot in Ohio as a major party.
Ohio officials say the party may still collect additional signatures to register as a minor party, which can field only presidential and vice presidential candidates.
But the shortfall in Ohio, say political analysts, shows why no new major party is likely to emerge to challenge the established ones, even though polls indicate that Americans would welcome fresh competition.
Some analysts now predict that the block of voters who coalesced behind Mr. Perot's independent presidential candidacy in 1992 will be considerably smaller in next year's elections - assuming the Reform Party can get on the ballot.
The party has been certified in one state to date - California. Petition signatures are still being reviewed by Maine officials.
For Perot voters, the ballot access failure in Ohio is "not a minor defeat,'' says Al Tuchfarber, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Ohio Poll. "The fact that they would have difficulty getting enough signatures here is really ominous for them in terms of mounting a successful third-party effort.''
Ohio was one of Perot's best states in 1992. He won 21 percent of the state's popular vote compared with his 19 percent national average.
HOWEVER, the Ohio chapter of Perot's United We Stand America watchdog group, which he assigned the task of party-building, is convulsed with infighting. Dissidents have even filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission suggesting that UWSA's efforts for the Reform Party violate the law.
In September, Perot announced that he was creating the Reform Party to establish the political infrastructure for a third presidential candidate. Although some speculate Perot may step forward eventually, the populist billionaire has not said if he will run or not.
Sharon Holman, a spokeswoman at the Dallas headquarters of UWSA, says that the Reform Party will choose a candidate after the Democratic and Republican conventions, possibly on Labor Day.
"The public is still angry. Perot still does relatively well when pollsters do matchups with Clinton and Dole,'' Mr. Tuchfarber says. Still, "I don't think there's anybody, including Perot, who can do as well as he did last time.''