WITH the distractions of Super Tuesday subsiding, maverick businessman Ross Perot is stepping up efforts to secure a spot on ballots across the country for his Reform Party in the fall general election.
Mr. Perot is a long way from being a viable candidate: His state-by-state effort to win access to the general-election ballot has garnered only five states so far. And the feisty Texan hasn't decided yet whether he will seek to lead his party's ticket, which will be determined at a late-summer nominating convention.
But Perot's efforts, including a March 13 kickoff to get on the ballot in Texas, are a reminder that the twists and turns of this election year haven't ended with Sen. Bob Dole's anticlimactic march toward the Republican nomination. In a race between two consummate political insiders - President Clinton and Senator Dole - Perot represents an unknown factor in the electoral calculus of several states that will be crucial this fall.
Take Texas. Four years ago, when Perot waged the most successful independent bid for the White House since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose run, he captured 22 percent of the Texas vote. His effort helped Mr. Clinton come within 4 points of President Bush in the incumbent's home state.
This year, presumptive GOP nominee Dole appears to enjoy a large lead over Clinton here. The Texas Poll found that Dole would win by 16 percentage points if the ballot were cast today. But that's without Perot in the race. The wealthy Texan would no doubt affect such polls: The question is how.
''If Perot is in, he elects Bill Clinton. End of discussion,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, voicing the common wisdom that Perot cut into the Republican vote in 1992 and would do so again. ''Any candidate on his party's ticket would split the anti-Clinton vote.''
But Alan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University in Washington, says history suggests otherwise. ''There has never been a scenario where the incumbent party has won because a third party split the opposition,'' he says. ''The last thing Clinton needs is Ross Perot.''
Perot tapped into voters' disenchantment with legislative gridlock and stagnant wages four years ago. On the way to winning 19 percent of the vote nationwide, he cobbled together a coalition of blue-collar workers worried about the impact of foreign-trade agreements on their jobs and middle-class professionals thirsty for governmental fiscal responsibility and political accountability.
Two years ago, when the Republicans took control of Congress, the Perot vote again played a key role. According to surveys by Mr. Schneider, two-thirds of Perot supporters voted for GOP candidates who promised to balance the budget, enact term limits, and cut taxes. None of those goals has been reached. Gridlock and deficits persist and so, apparently, does the public's dissatisfaction.
But Perot may no longer be the magnet that attracts discontented voters. Others have come along, including retired Gen. Colin Powell, publisher Steve Forbes, and commentator Pat Buchanan. Several polls show that as much as 40 percent of the electorate would vote for a third-party or independent candidate, but only about 12 to 16 percent would vote for Perot.
Nor is it undisputed that Perot handed Clinton the White House in 1992. ''The conventional wisdom is that Perot splits the Republican vote,'' says Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who consulted the 1992 Clinton campaign. ''Our polling showed that, if you remove Perot, his support split evenly between Bush and Clinton.'' In a race dominated by two establishment candidates this year, he says, ''neither Republicans nor Democrats should feel confident'' about benefiting from Perot's presence.
One way the discontent vote could fall toward Republicans is if Dole taps Mr. Powell as his running mate. While Mr. Buchanan, who is adamantly opposed to abortion, vows to fight against Powell or any other pro-choice running mate, the retired general remains popular among voters seeking an alternative.