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New Perot party confuses race for the White House

By announcing he is forming a third party to contest the presidency next year, the ever unpredictable Ross Perot has further confused a race for the White House already complicated by the possibility of an independent candidacy of the retired general Colin Powell.

The Texas billionaire unveiled his latest gambit on his public outlet of choice, CNN's Larry King show, where three-and-a-half-years ago he launched his own candidacy, which would draw 19 per cent of the popular vote, the best showing by an independent since Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party in 1912.

The new organisation will be called the Independence Party and Perot supporters have begun efforts to collect the required signatures in the three states - California, Ohio and Maine - which have a 1995 deadline for a third party to be formed and appear on next year's ballot papers.

If all goes to plan, the new organisation will hold a nation-wide primary in April, with the winner able to run in all 50 states in November, as Mr Perot did in 1992. The party will not field congressional candidates of its own but endorse Republicans and Democrats who broadly back its policies.

These are unlikely to differ much from the 1992 Perot platform: a balanced federal budget, term limits, campaign- finance reform and a rollback of the influence of lobbyists in the Washington political process: "This party will not be owned by special interests; it will be owned by the people," Mr Perot told Larry King.

He seemed to rule himself out as standard-bearer of the new party. Fresh faces were required: "Obviously I can't be the oyster and I can't be the pearl but I can be the grain of sand that irritates the oyster." But Mr Perot is rarely able to resist the limelight for long. Few doubt that, if he fails to attract a "world-class" figure to his colours, he will run again.

And an opening is there: as Mr Perot said, polls indicate that more than 60 per cent of Americans consider themselves "unrepresented" by the two established parties and nearly half of Republicans and Democrats alike say they would welcome the chance of voting for a third party.

Such dissatisfaction largely explains the clamour surrounding Mr Powell, as he continues a nation-wide book tour that resembles a royal progress. He says he will make up his mind by late November on whether to run, either by joining the contest for the 1996 Republican nomination or by mounting his own independent candidacy later.

The question then arises: would he become involved with Mr Perot? The latter sidestepped the issue on Monday, declining to list possible Independence candidates but saying he and his followers were looking for "people of the stature and quality" of Mr Powell.

The impact of a third candidate is debatable. If it were Mr Perot, President Bill Clinton's strategists would probably be delighted and confident that, as in 1992, he would confuse the issue and allow Mr Clinton to scrape through with a plurality of the vote.

But Mr Powell is a different matter. Polls suggest he would do far better than Mr Perot and also has a chance of defeating both Mr Clinton and the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, today's clear Republican front-runner, in a three-way contest. There only remains the small matter of what the general will do. The signals are conflicting, but if public adulation continues at its present level, he may have little choice but to run.