THE FIRST PEOPLE TO LEARN THE hottest news in politics these days are Colin Powell and Wendy Walker Whitworth. The top producer for Larry King's prime-time chat show on CNN, Whitworth had just finished the cake and champagne at her mother's 80th birthday celebration in Chicago early last week when her ever present beeper began chirping. The message: Call Ross Perot.
The twangy Texas billionaire, who seasons his speech with references to crazy aunts and albino monkeys, always gives good TV. So he had a long-standing invitation to announce on Larry King Live whatever he might do in the 1996 campaign. He was phoning Whitworth to accept. Perot wanted to announce the formation of a whole new "Independence" political party in all 50 states to challenge what he derides as "those special-interest parties," the Democrats and Republicans. Whitworth booked him for the following evening.
Perot then called the Virginia home of Powell, who was resting from the rigors of signing 4,000 copies a day of his memoir and deciding whether to run for President. Powell listened and asked questions as Perot explained his new party and his desire that it nominate some candidate other than himself for President--say, Powell or retiring Senator Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Democrat. The new party "will build a war chest of $60 million at least," Perot subsequently explained to TIME, so its candidate "won't have to go out with a tambourine and beg the special interests for money." Powell was noncommittal on the phone, but months earlier he had mused to friends that an independent movement with Perot's money--but without Perot as candidate--might be appealing. Later, asked by reporters whether he would run in Perot's new party, Powell replied, "Obviously, it's something I would consider."
Perot seems to realize he will never be President; too many Americans distrust and dislike him after his paranoid and imperious performances, from his baseless charge during the 1992 campaign that the G.O.P. was trying to disrupt his daughter's wedding through the 1993 debate with Vice President Al Gore over trade. In a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week, 54% of those surveyed believe Perot's formation of the new party is "good for the country." A two-thirds majority, however, think Perot should not be that party's candidate for President.
Yet Perot is determined to retain influence in presidential politics, and his success could already be seen last week in the reactions of the presidential hopefuls. Most Republicans expressed anger that Perot might again, as in 1992, draw votes away from their nominee and thus help Bill Clinton. At the same time, though, candidates Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan--and President Clinton--tried to ape Perot's independent appeal by distancing themselves from the congressional "insiders" who dominate their respective parties.