HERE IT IS almost 1991, and according to the inexorable logic of the political calendar, the 1992 presidential campaign is about to begin. So who's lining up on the Democratic side to compete for the big prize? Answer: nobody. They say you can't beat somebody with nobody, but Democrats seem determined to try.
Think of it: President Bush is a colorless and odorless political entity, introuble in his own political party, presiding over a nationwide recession. And the Democrats can't find anyone to run against him.
It's not that the Democrats lack potential candidates. Let's look at the top 10 noncandidates, two by two.
New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley are the big boys of the 1992 race. They come from important states and have national name recognition, serious reputations and a lot of campaign money. They also got burned last month. Voters, angry over tax hikes and declining economies, re-elected Cuomo and Bradley by embarrassingly thin margins.
Cuomo's message resonates deeply with Democratic partisans: sharing, family, compassion. To others, it sounds like taxing and spending. But if the recession is long enough and deep enough, it will begin to sound good to them, too.
Bradley, in his re-election campaign, was roundly criticized for his timidity on the tax issue, and he paid a price at the polls. He has said repeatedly that he is not running for president. Maybe after 1990 people will believe him. But with $4 million in the bank, he is still a player.
Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn are the party's good old boys. As moderate Southerners, they could bring large numbers of Southern whites back to the party. Both have gone to great lengths to prove their partisan credentials. But would they be acceptable to Northern liberals?
Then there are Jesse Jackson and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. They are both black, but that is about all they have in common. Jackson has run the same presidential campaign twice already, and it is doubtful that the Democrats want to see it
So far, Wilder is the party's most active noncandidate. He has created a political action committee and is giving speeches in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Wilder's message -- "the new mainstream" -- is aimed at white moderates and conservatives. It's an argument for fiscal responsibility: to cut spending and hold the line on taxes. It's a good message, but Democrats may not be listening.
Two old boys from 1988 may run again in 1992: Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Gore says he is "thinking about" running for president again. What he needs, more than anything else, is an issue. He ran on Southern regional resentment in 1988 and managed to win several primaries on Super Tuesday. Southern regional resentment didn't do him much good in Illinois or New York, however.
Gephardt has an issue. He is his party's leading spokesman for )) economic populism. He achieved a high political profile during the October budget crisis. And he gets under Bush's skin, which is no small achievement for a Democrat. But he has a strong incentive to stay in the House: He is in line to become the next speaker. Moreover, if Gephardt and Gore run and lose twice, that could spoil their chances for 1996. New boys don't have that problem. That's why Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Nebraska Sen. Robert Kerrey may get into the race.
Clinton has experience, and he has an issue (education). He is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of moderate Democrats. But he narrowly escaped disgrace in 1988, with his overlong convention speech.
The new boy attracting the most interest is Kerrey. He is a young, good-looking disabled war hero from the Midwest who became active in the anti-war movement. For many Democrats, the dream ticket is Cuomo for president and Kerrey for vice president. It unites the party's Mondale and Hart factions.
Can the Democrats nominate a winning ticket? There may be a self-regulating factor in the party. When there's peace and prosperity and the Republican president is strong and popular, only hard-core Democratic partisans and liberal activists bother to vote in the primaries and caucuses. The party nominates a narrowly based candidate, who proceeds to lose (1972, 1984). When the country is in trouble and the Republican president is unpopular, stronger candidates run, a broader cross section of the party participates and the party nominates a more viable ticket (1976).
For Democrats to win, they must believe they have a chance to win. And getting them to believe that is no small task.