WASHINGTON -- Last week, George Bush delivered the first promise of the 1992 presidential campaign.
As an anti-tax slogan, "over my dead veto" may not be as catchy as "read my lips." But his latest threat was a clear sign that Mr. Bush, despite his protestations to the contrary, had put a discouraging 1990 election behind and was now pointing to '92.
He isn't the only politician looking ahead.
"There's going to be a very fast change here," predicted Fred Martin, a Democratic consultant and manager of Sen. Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign. "We're going to move into the 1992 phase within about three weeks."
Actually, the first concrete moves have been made.
Political associates of Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia formed last week the Committee for Fiscal Responsibility in 1992, which could be the forerunner of a presidential campaign organization.
"We're committed to getting the Democratic Party competitive again at the presidential level," said Paul Goldman, the executive director, who also serves as state Democratic Party chairman and Mr. Wilder's top political strategist.
The committee, based in Alexandria, Va., may be used to defray the expenses of the governor's out-of-state political travels and make contributions to other Democratic candidates, though Mr. Goldman insisted that that was not its immediate purpose.
Mr. Wilder has been among the more active Democrats on a presidential circuit that has seen far less early activity than in other campaigns.
By one account, Democratic contenders had made 56 visits to Iowa at this point four years ago, compared with five this time.
The absence of early maneuvering by Democratic candidates has given issues and party strategies more prominence than usual, and last week's election may have intensified that debate.
Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, who says the presidential campaign started last month with the budget fight in Washington, thinks discussions leading up to the 1992 election will center on the "question of who pays for the economic follies of the 1980s."
The economic fairness issue, however, produced fewer electionvictories last week than Democratic Party strategists had hoped for and is already being questioned by others within the party. For that reason, the 1992 race may begin with an internal Democratic fight over how far to push the "soak-the-rich" theme.
"Soak-the-rich is a foolhardy strategy in the long run," contended Alvin From, director of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of elected officials that promotes what it terms mainstream values. "People aren't dumb. They know you can only soak the rich so much. Then you soak everybody else."
While last week's election was a victory nationally for Democrats, the results may have hurt the party's presidential chances because of the loss of key governorships in the Midwest battleground states of Ohio and Michigan and the failure to win the California governor's race.
Some leading Democratic strategists think the party's best chance to retake the White House would be to cede the increasingly Republican South to Mr. Bush and concentrate on a Northeast-Midwest-Pacific Coast strategy.
But the 1990 election seems to have renewed the debate over that approach, largely because of blows suffered by two of the party's most celebrated presidential possibilities, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who barely managed to get a majority of the vote Tuesday against political nonentities.
The damage may turn out to be relatively short-lived for Mr. Cuomo, the presumed favorite on the Democratic side if he runs. But his poor showing, combined with the surprisingly strong victories of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Texas, has revived calls for a Southern strategy in 1992.
"A Northeastern candidate with a traditional, old-style Democratic method cannot be effective in 1992," declared Sen. John B. Breaux, D-La., chairman of the party's senatorial campaign committee.
A post-election "boomlet" to get a Southerner into the race is also under way, according to one well-placed Democrat in Washington. The effort centers on two senators known to harbor presidential ambitions: Tennessee's Gore and Georgia's Sam Nunn.
Mr. Gore, after winning re-election by a wide margin last week, said he would consider, in the days and weeks ahead, whether to make another try for the White House.
And Mr. Nunn, who says he has no plans to run, has taken several steps this year that suggest he might want a spot on the '92 ticket, including resigning from a prestigious Maryland country club that bars women and moving away from his long-held position against abortion.