in Washington - Hillary Clinton might have considered the meeting place significant. Howard Phillips, two-time presidential candidate and favorite of right-wing conspirators everywhere, chose Morton's of Chicago as the site for a lunchtime interview. To the liberal mind, the very name of Morton's conjures up images of rich white men doing unhealthy things like eating red meat, smoking cigars, and plotting to re-establish their mastery of the world. Mr. Phillips seemed right at home in the clubby atmosphere, somehow managing to wrap his lips around an impossibly thick red-meat sandwich while photos of prominent Washington conservatives stared down from the paneled walls. Aside from the disappointing lack of a cigar at lunch, he was the very stereotype of a Republican: portly, scowling, bushily eyebrowed, and wearing a three-piece suit straight out of the early Reagan years. But Howard Phillips is no Republican. He is, depending on where one lives, a U.S. Taxpayer, an American Independent, an Independent American, a Right-to-Lifer, a Concerned Citizen, or a Constitutionalist. After years as a self-described "highly partisan Republican," Mr. Phillips walked away in disgust in 1991, convinced that conservatives were "being bought off with visits to the Roosevelt Room, pats on the head from George Bush, photo opportunities with Dan Quayle." He was certain that the time had come for a third party. Others weren't so sure. Mr. Phillips says he tried to convince prominent conservatives from Pat Buchanan to Colorado Senator Bill Armstrong to run on an independent ticket in 1992 against George Bush and Bill Clinton. When there were no takers, he took the plunge himself, garnering 43,434 votes out of the 104 million ballots cast nationwide. Four years later he was twisting arms again, hoping to lure Family Research Council president Gary Bauer or former Interior Secretary Don Hodel into the race. Failing that, he bore the standard a second time, attracting 128,808 voters in his sophomore effort. Given such minuscule numbers, independent candidates like Mr. Phillips have traditionally been the joke of American political life. No third-party candidate has ever been elected president, though a few, like ex-president Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 and Strom Thurmond in 1948, managed to win a handful of states. Even Ross Perot, with his billions of dollars and 18 percent of the popular vote, couldn't manage that feat. Most voters would be hard-pressed to name a single independent candidate from 1996 besides Mr. Perot. Who, for instance, remembers Natural Law candidate John Hagelin, who ran on a platform advocating transcendental meditation and sustainable agriculture? Another candidate, Monica Moorehead of the World Workers Party, was excluded-kicking and screaming-from a C-SPAN debate of third-party candidates because she had collected only 181 votes in her 1992 campaign. So what does it take for these candidates to get a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t? In Mr. Phillips's case, it took a single speech in February. That's when James Dobson announced to the world that in 1996 he had abandoned Bob Dole and pulled the lever marked "American Constitution Party"-the moniker under which Mr. Phillips had made the Colorado ballot. Most of Mr. Dobson's 5 million radio listeners responded with a resounding "Howie who?" But among Religious Right leaders, the burly conservative with the bulldog scowl is a well-known and somewhat beloved figure. Indeed, James Dobson wasn't the only one to cast a protest vote in 1996. At least two other leaders of powerful grass-roots organizations told Mr. Phillips that he'd won their votes, though they were not yet ready to make a public issue of their independence. For the Republican Party, such simmering hostility could spell major trouble in the presidential election of 2000. The assumption among the GOP brass has always been that religious conservatives were a captive constituency because they had nowhere else to go. Indeed, even as they scramble to keep Mr. Dobson happy, party leaders seem not to understand the exact nature of the threat. According to Mike Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, prominent Republicans at a recent Washington enclave begged leaders of family groups, "'Don't go out and vote for the Democrats.' That's not the issue. The issue on the minds of people is, Should they go out and join the U.S. Taxpayers Party?" As Mr. Dobson has proved, that is a very real option for disaffected social conservatives. The infrastructure for a mass defection already exists. By tapping into a patchwork of independent state parties already in place, Mr. Phillips made the ballot in 39 states last time around. To make the remaining states in 2000, the Taxpayers Party will hold its national nominating convention in 1999, allowing an extra 12 months to generate enthusiasm and ballot signatures for a specific candidate. In 1995, the Federal Election Commission recognized U.S. Taxpayers as one of five national parties (along with the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Natural Law parties). That means that just like the majors, Mr. Phillips can accept donations of up to $20,000 per year in hard money as well as unlimited "soft money" donations from organizations advocating certain policy positions rather than specific candidates. The policy positions of the Taxpayers Party seem custom-made for attracting both the donations and the votes of social conservatives. "We can do everything" Republicans have refused to do, Mr. Phillips insists. "We are going to get out of the UN. We are going to get rid of the IRS, the income tax, eliminate abortion. There won't be any money for NEA or Planned Parenthood. We can buy back decades-more than 100 years-of liberty in the single space of four years in office. It must be done, and we have a plan for getting it done." Could somebody else execute the plan, somebody carrying the Republican banner? To Mr. Phillips, the chances of that are so remote that the question hardly even merits an answer. "I cannot foresee circumstances in which someone would win the Republican nomination and be in a position to change the direction of the federal government," he says. "I don't believe it's possible for the Republican Party ever to be the instrument for putting a new America back on the right track. There are too many internal inconsistencies. For a Christian conservative to unite the Republican Party, he would have to surrender his agenda. You can't put new wine in old bottles. We need a home of our own." Mr. Phillips insists that others would be welcome in that home. "In politics," he says, paraphrasing Phyllis Schlafly, "you have to let people support you for the reason of their choice." For that reason, he is careful to stress that the U.S. Taxpayers Party is not only for Christians, but for "constitutionalists and conservatives" as well. Indeed, the party once thought of changing its name to de-emphasize the financial aspect, but decided to stick with the old name "because basically what we are seeking to do is to defend the taxpayers against the tax users." Still, many of the financial tenets of the Taxpayers Party are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Libertarians. What really sets Mr. Phillips and his friends apart is their insistence on mixing faith and politics. "The sovereignty of God is the number-one issue," says Mr. Phillips, who was brought up Jewish and converted to Christianity in the late 1980s. One of his greatest intellectual influences was R.J. Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist who advocates the institution of the Bible's civil as well as moral law in the United States. That view has led Mr. Phillips to oppose Ernest Istook's Religious Freedom Amendment on the grounds that "it would give all religions equal standing [with] Christianity. This is a Christian nation. That amendment surrenders the Christian premise of American civilization." Such a position is unlikely to win many votes from constitutionalists and conservatives who don't also happen to be Christians. Even many fellow believers have distanced themselves from the more Reconstructionist tenets of the party's platform. Indeed, Mr. Dobson himself has refused to withdraw his support for the Istook Amendment despite the best arguments of the man for whom he voted for president. But Mr. Phillips seems completely unfazed by such disagreements. If he is not desperate to find middle ground on controversial subjects, it is because he is not desperate to be president. His protestations of unworthiness do not seem to be merely a mask for driving ambition. His lined face backs up his words when he says, "It's hard work running for president. It's very expensive. If somebody else wants to do it and advance our platform, I am ready to join his bandwagon." For now, however, Mr. Phillips remains a rather lonely and quixotic figure tilting at the windmills of the two-party system. And while he hopes that frustration with the GOP will eventually lead to a bandwagon effect, he recognizes that for the moment, his third-party effort bears more resemblance to a very different type of craft: "We are building the ark in case [God] wants to give us a flood," he says. Only time will tell whether the rising tide of frustration among Christians will be enough to lift that ark off the ground. In the meantime, Republican loyalists are keeping a nervous eye on the stormclouds gathering on the horizon.