ohn Fund places his finger on an important but underappreciated aspect of American politics, the role of third parties in determining outcomes of elections ("Why Both Parties Should Worry About a Third Party," editorial page, July 13). Traditionally, voters have used them as protest vehicles or as mechanisms to discipline a party that has strayed from its principles. Sometimes those who instigated third party candidacies produced results opposite of what they intended. That is what happened in 1844 when "immediate" abolitionists, upset with Henry Clay for favoring restrictions on slavery and its gradual abolition, formed a third party. They took enough votes away from Clay in New York to hand the state and the election to James K. Polk, whose position on slavery was clear. He not only favored it, but expanded its reach into territory he added to the union through conquest. Every third party this century, save for LaFollette's 1924 race against Coolidge and Davis and Henry Wallace's anemic challenge to Truman, Dewey and Thurmond in 1948, had an effect on presidential contests. Political scientists are still debating whether George Wallace's 13% showing doomed Hubert Humphey's chances or depressed the size of Richard Nixon's win. Facing a highly compressed primary season, Republican operatives and fund-raisers settled early on a candidate they believe can win. Given the poor press congressional Republicans have been receiving, they looked to a popular governor with broad appeal. This is the very thing their counterparts of yesteryear, so often praised these days by pundits frustrated at the small turnouts of voters in less populated states to determine nominees, did with much success. They, though, did their selecting in smoke-filled rooms. With all 10 GOP presidential contenders saying they are pro-life, pro-defense, and pro-tax cuts, whatever debate there has been was of a cultural rather than an ideological nature ("compassionate conservative" vs. "barnstorming," "litmus tests" vs. big tents). Followers of Sen. Robert Smith and other "conservatives" contemplating candidacies will have to decide whether they want to make Al Gore this year's James K. Polk. How would that further their agenda of reduced abortions, a strong military posture, and lower taxes?