WASHINGTON -- As the 1990 off-year political campaign enters its final two months, a key ingredient in recent years is absent. There is no crop of budding 1992 presidential hopefuls latching onto gubernatorial and senatorial contests in critical presidential-election states, in the pursuit of name recognition and political IOUs.
The phenomenon runs counter to the axiom that presidential campaigns have become endless exercises, marathons that begin almost the minute the winner of the last one is sworn in. Jimmy Carter set the pattern by starting in late 1972 to plan for the 1976 campaign. Although he did not actually set foot in Iowa until February 1975 his example led many subsequent White House aspirants to use the off-year elections as hunting grounds.
One reason the Carter model is not being followed yet is that most of the small handful of Democrats being mentioned are busy running for re-election -- Govs. Mario Cuomo in New York and Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Sens. Bill Bradley in New Jersey, Albert Gore in Tennessee and Sam Nunn in Georgia, to name the most obvious prospects. Although none has a serious challenge, the opposition is enough to keep each of them at home.
About the only nationally-known Democrats getting mentions for the 1992 national ticket are Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Jesse Jackson. Bentsen has been on the chicken-and-mashed-potatoes circuit, but only occasionally. Wilder, perhaps the most active Democrat raising funds for the party and its off-year candidates, is considered only a vice presidential prospect at this point, in part as a more palatable alternative to Jackson among white voters. As for Jackson, he is busy in his newfound career as a journalist/diplomat and in running to become a "shadow" senator -- that is, an elected lobbyist for District of Columbia statehood -- in tomorrow's D.C. Democratic primary.
Also to be considered is the continuing political popularity of President Bush. As he rides high in the polls, the Democrats are not exactly lining up to take him on. The paucity of candidates has even given rise to the preposterous notion that leading Democrats will be more than willing to let Jackson have a worthless nomination in 1992 just to get him out of the way afterward. Sooner or later, other challengers will emerge, but not yet.
The 1988 experience involving the early caucus and primary states also has taken some of the bloom off the Carter model. Whereas he used the Iowa precinct caucuses in 1976 to score a surprise victory and then went on to cement it in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Iowa settled nothing in 1988.
In Iowa's caucuses, the Democratic winner was Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and the GOP winner was Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. But in the next major test, in the alien territory of New Hampshire, Gephardt lost to Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts and Dole to George Bush, the New Englander transplanted to Texas.
The ever-mounting cost of campaigning also may be working to delay the earnest start of the 1992 presidential sweepstakes. Gephardt in putting most of his eggs in the Iowa basket in narrowly winning the caucuses there in 1988 found his campaign seriously depleted for the long string of caucus and primary contests that followed.
Finally, potential 1992 candidates may well be influenced by the pathetic turnout figures in the 1988 presidential campaign, in which less than half the eligible voting-age population went to the polls. The negative tone of that campaign, and of a series of campaigns for lesser offices since then, has put politicians, in general, in foul odor with the public, and 1992 hopefuls may be exercising good judgment in reining in their ambitions for a while longer.
Democrats who fret over the absence of a crop of hustling presidential candidates can take heart, however, in the pre-Carter days. In 1960, for example, their winning candidate, John F. Kennedy, did not declare his candidacy until the first days of the presidential-election year itself. The same was true of Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, yet each won.
It may be that the off-year election results will fuel more overt, active presidential candidacies among some of those leading Democrats seeking re-election this fall. It's very flattering, after all, to be constantly introduced to audiences as "the next president of the United States," even if the designation proves to be incorrect.