The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released last week, says that 62 percent of the people surveyed would be satisfied with the choice on the ballot if the current leaders in the Democratic and Republican nomination fights, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, are the candidates in next year's presidential election.

That indicates there's a smaller market for a third-party or independent presidential candidate in 2000 than earlier in this decade. I don't believe it -- and, far more important, neither does Patrick J. Buchanan.

My gut tells me that despite the current balmy economic times, the opening for a third candidate is large -- and likely to grow larger. Whether Pat Buchanan is the man to exploit that opportunity is much more questionable.

Buchanan made it clear on last Sunday's "Meet the Press" that he is leaning strongly toward abandoning his third quest for the Republican presidential nomination and throwing in with the Reform Party started by Ross Perot. His economic nationalism fits perfectly with Perot's views, and he is being encouraged to take the step by Pat Choate, the Washington economic consultant who was Perot's 1996 running mate.

But it was not economic discontent that elected Jesse Ventura as the Reform Party candidate for governor of Minnesota last November over highly credible Republican and Democratic nominees. Rather, it was the sense of frustration with the partisan squabbling in the legislature and the voters' belief that the old politicians were squandering the opportunity these good times create for addressing some of their concerns.

As Clinton and Congress head into another round of fiscal battles that will probably doom any real progress on Social Security, Medicare, campaign-finance reform or improvements in the fairness of the tax code, voters across America are likely to become even more fed up with two-party gridlock in Washington.

That is the real opening for the Reform Party. But to grasp that opportunity, it would have to find a candidate who promised to focus on those fundamental issues in our politics -- and to build a powerful enough public consensus around them to cudgel the reluctant congressmen of both major parties to face up to their responsibilities. That is what Ventura has done in Minnesota in the past year and what Independent Gov. Angus King has done over the past five years in Maine.

To think of Pat Buchanan as a consensus-builder is risible. It's not even certain he can win agreement within the Reform Party. As he made clear in answering my questions on "Meet the Press," he is not prepared to abandon or soften any of his strong antiabortion principles in order to win the nomination of a party that up to this point, has, as he said, been "agnostic" on abortion and other social issues.

Voter polls after the 1992 election, when Perot ran his best race, showed his supporters were the most secular group in the electorate, believing even more strongly than the typical Bill Clinton voters that moral matters should be left to individual conscience.

Ventura reflects that view, and nominally has taken control of the Reform Party away from Perot's machine. But given the chaos within Reform Party ranks and the encouragement Buchanan is getting from the top, it is certainly possible that his Pitchfork Brigades can dominate next August's Reform convention and nominate their man.

But Buchanan brings enormous baggage with him. His new book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," has a screed on "Jewish influence over [American] foreign policy" that will surely revive the charges of antisemitism William F. Buckley Jr. leveled at Buchanan in 1992. It also decries "the new religious crusaders" of the Christian right, who question whether "the United States [should] be friendly to a country that is unfriendly to our ideal of religious freedom."

Like the recently released Puerto Rican prisoners, Buchanan advocates independence for Puerto Rico and flatly opposes statehood. On the other hand, he says that the United States should hold out the offer of statehood to any Canadian province that wishes to break away. His view seems to be: White Quebecers, yes; darker-skinned Puerto Ricans, no.

He says that Mexico, not Fidel Castro, is the biggest threat to stability in the hemisphere and suggests sending troops to our southern border. On the other hand, he would leave it up to Asian countries (Japan? South Korea?) to provide the first line of defense if China were to threaten Taiwan.

You have to wonder if that's the way to create a credible third force in American politics.