Aside from injecting an unpredictable new element into an already unsettled political season, Ross Perot's surprise announcement that he intends to create a third party stunned and angered Republican leaders, who view the move as a major threat to GOP hopes of reclaiming the White House.
Reflecting Republican anxiety about Perot's re-entry into the political process, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Tuesday called the Texas billionaire's bid to build a new party around disgruntled independents a "fantasy of delusion" and a "substantial mistake."
GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour, barely concealing his vexation with Perot, said that the practical effect of the third-party effort would be to splinter conservative voters. Barbour and others fear a replay of 1992 when, in their view, Perot's independent candidacy led to the defeat of President George Bush.
Perot's new endeavor, Barbour warned, may allow President Clinton to "slip back into the White House."
For his part, Clinton suppressed his instinct for lengthy comment, saying only that he shares some of Perot's concerns about the current political process. The President declined to make any predictions about the impact of Perot's latest political adventure.
"I'm trying to balance the budget and I'm an ardent promoter of political reform . . . but he'll have to do whatever he wants to do and the American people can make their judgment," Clinton said.
In Southern California, meanwhile, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell revealed that he learned firsthand of Perot's third-party proposal this past weekend during a telephone conversation with the Texan.
Powell, who is traveling around the nation promoting his autobiography, has kept alive a boomlet promoting him as a presidential candidate by declining to rule out such a bid. He took that approach as he signed copies of his books in Fountain Valley Tuesday afternoon, saying, "Sure," when asked if he would consider running as a third-party candidate.
But he also noted that as of now, Perot's proposal "is not a party, it's an idea." Additionally, a history of bad feeling exists between a trusted Powell associate and Perot. And Powell's commitment to Perot's reform agenda is unclear.
Perot, as is his custom, has launched the Independence Party without answering a number of fundamental questions: Who will lead the new entity? How will it raise the $100 million or so it needs to compete in a national presidential contest with the established parties? How will it address the myriad problems involved in winning a prominent place on 50 separate state ballots?
In an interview, Perot said that these questions will be answered in time. His first priority, he indicated, is storming California, where he must produce nearly 900,000 petition signatures, or 90,000 new party registrants, by Oct. 24 to qualify the new party for next year's elections.
Starting Friday night in San Diego, he plans to travel the state attending voter-registration workshops and publicizing his party-building effort. He is to stop in Orange County Saturday morning and end his trip Sunday night in Northern California.
Perot said petitions calling for the creation of the new party--to be known in California as the Reform Party because of a name conflict with an existing party--would be printed in newspapers throughout the state on Sunday. He is paying for the newspaper ads, but he said that he expected the new party to be financially self-supporting by early next year.
Perot asserted that his intent was not to undermine either the Republican or Democratic Party, but rather to give disaffected voters a place to express their discontent with the current state of American politics.
He predicted that he would easily meet California's--and every other state's--ballot deadline and that his party would quickly become a major feature of the political landscape.
"Great things happen quickly," the aphoristic Perot said. "God created the heaven and the earth in six days."
Republican presidential contenders met Perot's announcement with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
"It's a 'deja-lose' formula that would make 1996 a rerun of 1992," said former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Nelson Warfield, the chief campaign spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner, noted acidly that "Mr. Perot has the right to pursue whatever political activity he wants." But he said those who backed Perot in 1992 would be ill-served by becoming part of an untried new political entity.
Conversely, Clinton has good cause to be serene about the possibility of a Perot candidacy or one backed by his new party, political analysts said Tuesday.
Kevin Phillips, author and commentator who once was a GOP strategist, said Perot's reappearance creates "a huge problem" for Republicans.
Phillips said that Perot's new party offers another outlet for disaffected Republicans, many of whom are already beguiled by the possibility of an independent presidential campaign by Powell.
"What we may see in the next 12 months as this plays out is that George Bush's 37.5% [of the popular vote] in 1992 was not a fluke but evidence of underlying crevasses and cracks in the Republican electorate," Phillips said.
Perot unveiled his proposed party on CNN's "Larry King Live" program Monday night. Even as he was touting the third-party effort, he left open the possibility that he would drop it if the major parties acted quickly on the key elements of the Perot platform.
Those include a balanced budget, fundamental revisions in the tax structure, strict new ethical standards for federal elected officials and major changes in campaign finance and lobbying rules.
Phillips cautioned that whether Perot will sustain his party-building effort, particularly if it encounters difficulties, remains in doubt. "It's never been clear whether Perot will do in April what he says in September," Phillips said.
Perot said that the new party would hold an open nominating process, a sort of "electronic primary" in which party members would vote by telephone and satellite hookup to name a presidential nominee. Perot said the party does not intend to field candidates for lower offices, but would endorse Senate and House candidates.
The Texan said that he was looking for "world-class" contenders for the Independence Party presidential nomination, people of the "stature and quality" of Powell.
But the prospect of Powell running under the Perot banner appears dubious at best. One of Powell's closest advisers and personal friends is former Pentagon official Richard L. Armitage, with whom Perot has had a bitter and long-running feud.
A source close to Powell said Tuesday there was virtually no chance that a Powell-Perot alliance could be forged.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who worked briefly for Perot in 1992, offered one possible positive for the GOP should Perot follow through with the third-party drive. The new party could be a windfall for GOP congressional candidates, Luntz said.
Luntz's polling indicates that 85% of 1992 Perot voters chose Republican congressional candidates in 1994, when the GOP swept to control of the House and Senate.
"The Perot agenda is largely the Republican agenda," Luntz said. "If [GOP] congressional candidates stick to that, 85% to 90% of them should get the Perot party's endorsement."
More broadly, Luntz said that the Perot announcement may mark an important point in U.S. political history.
"We're not about to elect a third-party candidate President, not yet," said Luntz. "But the two-party system is disintegrating; as we reach a new millennium, our political structure is not going to look like it did 20 years ago.
"We're going through the pre-shocks now," Luntz said. "The political earthquake is yet to come."
Times staff writer Bob Sipchen contributed to this story.