FOR a while there it appeared 1996 held the promise of becoming a defining presidential election, one that finally offered America's centrist bloc of disenchanted voters a candidate they could call their own.
Gen. Colin Powell's book tour was storming the country while General Powell played coy about his electoral intentions. Ross Perot was again in high media mode, vowing a new party of the the political middle. Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, ex-Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, and other self-described centrists were sounding as if they might run.
But it's now hard to see how those centrist dreams can be fulfilled. Powell frustrated many when he decided not to run. This week, a secretive group of centrist Democrats and independents crumbled when they couldn't produce a candidate to carry their message. And Mr. Perot's Reform Party, failing to make the primary ballot in Ohio, is struggling to regain the momentum Perot had in 1992.
So what's a discontented voter to do when the choice seems to be between two consummate politicians - Bill Clinton and Bob Dole? Stay tuned.
"The public's disenchantment could still find a candidate," says William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "This is America. Where there's a market, there is going to be a product." Jimmy Carter, he recalls, was practically invented by voters' desire for a figure of honesty in the wake of Watergate.
Despite the public backlash against incumbent politicians over the past three elections, the parties and the polity still don't seem to be in the same place. In 1990, for the first time since World War II, voters lashed out against incumbents from both parties in the same election. Two years later, they rejected President Bush. Last year voters ended the Democrats' 40-year run on Capitol Hill.
While the Democrats fell apart, the Republicans claimed what may have been a false mandate. The public is growing increasingly intolerant of GOP budget tactics, holding Republicans more responsible than the White House for failure to reach compromise.
"The two parties are caricatures of their former selves," says political analyst Charles Cook. "They are more concerned with their base and less with swing voters. Voters are suspicious of the sincerity of Democrats and the extremity of Republicans."
How will that play in the 1996 elections? Few offer confident predictions. "We've seen a succession of failed governance in a context in which the parties have no overarching bond with large parts of the electorate," says Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "The vote is up for grabs."
That's already tempting the top two presidential candidates toward the center.
President Clinton began bucking his party months ago and is now consistently riding above 50 percent in opinion polls. He has backed the GOP principle of a balanced budget, but has gained ground by defending Medicare, education, and the environment from Republican budget provisions.
Now Senator Dole appears charting a similar course, whether intentionally or not. This week, he backed off a strict stand against abortion and expressed support for limited gun control. The Christian Coalition and National Rifle Association cried foul, but general voters aren't likely to.
Clinton and Dole act increasingly as if the race has come down to the two of them, and perhaps it has. The president dodged a bullet when no other Democrats registered last week for the New Hampshire primary, almost guaranteeing no intraparty challenge. None of Dole's Republican rivals is a serious threat yet, although that could change in the next seven weeks.
Still, the primaries might not be the place to look for the action, many pundits say. This year, because the states have bunched together to wield more influence in the nominating process, there will be a long, four-month gap between the last primary and the conventions. That's plenty of time for voters - or independents - to react.
"There is enormous politico-entrepreneurial opportunity for someone," says Jim Pinkerton, a former Bush administration official. "Clinton and Dole will wrap up the nominations quickly. Then there's four months of hang-time for third parties and renegades, speculation and configurations."
If voters don't like what they see in the nominees, and are vocal enough about it, Perot's Reform Party, for example, could gain momentum.
Another possibility is that voter discontent, should it persist until next November, could shake up Capitol Hill again.
"The thing to watch is the congressional elections," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "If people perceive progress, some of the discontent will dissipate. If Whitewater or the [ethics] complaints against Speaker Gingrich turn into something, that will recharge the battery."
Of course, the two-party system is unfriendly to outside challenges, and few experts are willing to predict that large numbers of independents will be taking the oath of office a year from now.
Nor are party politics the only cause for discontent. There are more pressing concerns for voters, such as a recession or American casualties in Bosnia.
"The volatility of the public mood is not anchored in the parties," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington who has written a book about the upcoming election. "Voters are influenced by the events of the day."
So far, at least, nobody's figured out how to write a script for that.