WASHINGTON -- The crisis in the Persian Gulf has added a complicating element to the embryonic campaign for the presidency in 1992 by offering potential Democratic candidates one more reason for moving more slowly than has been the pattern in recent campaigns.
On the face of it, such Democratic caution makes sense -- at least for some prospective candidates. President Bush's political position entering the campaign could be significantly affected by his performance in resolving the crisis in the Middle East. If, for example, Bush were to emerge in what appeared to be an invulnerable position, it might make sense for younger Democratic candidates to hold their ambitions in check until 1996.
But, a result in the gulf perceived as a failure -- a war that produced heavy casualties, most obviously -- could make Bush so vulnerable that any Democrat with even the most remote prospects might be scrambling to seize the opportunity.
As a practical matter, however, the Democrats may be totally mistaken if they believe the Persian Gulf situation will determine the shape of the political landscape a year from today. The most likely result would be one that will move the story off the front pages -- and turn the voters' attention to the issue that always dominates campaigns in hard times, the condition of the economy.
The voters have demonstrated in the recent past that their attention span is short and that international issues, barring a shooting war, are too divorced from their daily lives to be controlling in their voting. They have demonstrated for generations that genuine economic distress is always the most telling issue in national politics.
Whatever the facts of the case, the concentration on the crisis seems to have served to wet down both the activity of Democratic candidates and the speculation about it. Several possible candidates -- including Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas -- have been saying or doing things that qualify in the political lexicon as "moving around" to hint at interest in 1992. But the only one who has appeared to be breathing hard so far is that ultimate long shot, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia.
The notion that Democrats need to get their campaigns in gear now is based on a misreading of both political history and the outlook for 1992.
According to political legend, the pattern for the early starting campaign was set by Jimmy Carter, then an obscure, former governor of Georgia. What is overlooked is that Carter did not make his first national trip to test the waters until January 1975 -- the equivalent in this cycle of next month. The early pattern was reinforced in the Democratic competitions in both 1984 and 1988 -- but only by candidates who, like Carter before them, were so unknown to party activists and voters alike that they had no choice but to begin early.
By contrast, the potential Democratic field in 1992 includes many potential candidates -- Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Sens. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Sam Nunn of Georgia, to cite the obvious examples -- who have enough national stature that they could delay their candidacies until late in 1991 and still have the potential to raise enough money to be competitive in the first primaries. The same might be true of Gephardt and Gore, both of whom have the added advantage of having been around the track once.
More to the point, there is a growing recognition among the Democrats that starting early and spending early doesn't necessarily pay dividends. The results of the primaries in 1984 and 1988 had little correlation with the intensity of the political maneuvering in 1983 and 1987, meaning before voters started paying any close attention. Although it is true that Gephardt's early start in Iowa may have helped him win the 1988 caucuses there, it may be equally true that success was more a product of his imaginative use of the trade issue than of his personal campaigning.
Since 1976, many candidates in both parties have been following the Carter pattern. But there are many reasons to believe a new pattern may be set in 1992.
It makes sense for any potential Democratic candidate to wait and see how President Bush emerges from the Persian Gulf crisis -- and perhaps even to learn how deep a recession the nation must experience. But they can afford to wait. Iowa and New Hampshire will still be there in May or June.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.