WASHINGTON. — Washington --Four years ago this winter, you couldn't get a hotel room at the Wayfarer in Manchester or the Savery in Des Moines. The rental-car business was booming and political bars were packed up and down the primary states.
This winter, there is hardly a hint that the 1992 primaries are only a year away. Other than Mr. Bush, only one politician -- ex-politician, actually -- has said out loud that he is available as a candidate for president. That one is George McGovern. His saying so might inspire a useful boost in his lecture bookings, but it has not set off any great popular celebration.
The consensus has been that if Mr. Bush makes it through the Persian Gulf war without too much bloodshed, and if the recession ends this year as predicted, there will be little point in any Democrat's bothering to run. The polls have suggested as much.
But there are polls, and polls. Much depends on what questions are asked, and how. And the latest survey by the Gallup organization has given ranking Democrats hope that there will be an election next year after all.
Popular approval for the president is still in the stratosphere, up around 80 percent. But when pollsters match his name against a Democrat -- any unnamed Democrat -- Mr. Bush takes only 54 percent, which is well below his actual vote in the 1988 election. That sounds heartening to the out party until we reach the fine print. While Mr. Bush takes 54, the unnamed Democrat gets only 33, with 13 percent undecided. If the undecideds split down the middle, that would give the president slightly more than his 1988 total of 59 percent.
A loyal Democrat may scoff at those figures, saying that of course Mr. Bush would lead ''the Democratic candidate.'' One of the oldest truisms in politics is that you can't beat somebody with nobody, even in opinion polls. But according to Gallup, when you match the potential Democratic candidates one by one against Mr. Bush, none of them does as well as the generic, unnamed contender.
In favorable-unfavorable ratings, the only Democrat who gets more than half of Mr. Bush's current 80 percent is Mario Cuomo, who draws 42 percent. Mr. McGovern comes next at 40, but has a 31 percent unfavorable rating. Jesse Jackson comes third at 36, but his unfavorables are a devastating 49 percent. Dick Gephardt, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley, George Mitchell, Jay Rockefeller, Doug Wilder, Bob Kerrey and Bill Clinton follow in that order.
And yet -- the country's ranking elected Democrat, Speaker Tom Foley, sees issues that may make a campaign: tax fairness, energy policy, transportation, education -- even, conceivably, the war that is supposed to make Mr. Bush's re-election inevitable.
The president's idea of returning some federal funds to the states is ''a kind of rhetorical flourish looking for a concept,'' he cracks. He objects to having one government tax people and another government spend it. The argument that cutting capital-gains taxes will increase revenues forever, the speaker says, is evidence that somebody in the administration is indulging in ''supply-side recreational smoking.''
An early end to fighting in the gulf, he maintains, will loosen
political debate. Mr. Bush would be much harder to criticize if he were still presiding over a war during the 1992 campaign. And while Democrats support the president's conduct of the war now, they might well part ways with the White House if he extends U.S. war aims beyond what the United Nations has demanded. Invading and occupying Iraq, or offering American funds to help rebuild Iraq, would surely provoke partisan debate.
The speaker shrugs off the slow start to the 1992 campaign. Four years ago, he says, the only announced candidates were Bruce Babbitt and Pete du Pont. But of course a platoon of unannounced candidates was busy in each party. Mr. Foley has his favorite this time: the House majority leader, Mr. Gephardt. But for the moment, most contenders are waiting out the war to start politicking.
Indeed, there is no certainty that Mr. Gephardt will try. Mr. Foley says that if his colleague should ask him whether to run, it would be like asking a friend, ''Should I marry Mary Jane Smith?'' -- if the question has to be asked, the obvious answer is no.
So far, apparently, Mr. Gephardt hasn't asked. Nor have Messrs. Cuomo, Jackson, Bentsen, Gore et al. They are waiting -- not watching each other as much as they are Saddam Hussein.