WASHINGTON — IN THE FALL of 1959 Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York embarked on two long trips around the country to test the waters for a possible presidential campaign in 1960. He found, unsurprisingly, that Republican regulars were strongly resistant because they favored Vice President Richard M. Nixon. But Rockefeller also discovered he had a personal celebrity that no politician of the time could match.
Just before the end of the year, however, Rockefeller decided against running -- and thus forfeited what he later realized was his one best chance to become president. By the time he ran in 1964 a divorce and remarriage had robbed him of much of the glitter he had enjoyed four years earlier.
That bit of political history is worth recalling as we see the spectacle of Democrats trying to find just the right time to run for president by passing up a campaign against President Bush next year in the hope that the circumstances will be more auspicious in 1996. The lesson they may be overlooking, however, is that politicians can outsmart themselves by trying to fine-tune their careers.
The examples are many. Just four years ago, for example, many professionals believed that either Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey or Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York could have entered the race as late as November, 1987 and won the 1988 nomination against the field of active but little-known Democratic candidates. But Bradley now has been tarnished by a near-miss re-election campaign last fall and by his own displays of political caution in the Senate.
Cuomo is confronted with a parlous state fiscal situation that must be resolved before he can run. Moreover, the New York Democrat is now essentially out of options. He has built enough of a reputation as "the Hamlet of Albany" so that if doesn't run this time, the demand may be far less obvious than it is today.
Just how many Democrats are looking beyond 1992 to 1996 is an open question. But the list clearly includes Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Sens. Sam Nunn, Robert Kerrey and John D. Rockefeller IV and possibly House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. That leaves a likely field of Sen. Albert Gore Jr., Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and perhaps Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Govs. Cuomo and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
These lists may change radically in the next few months. Some of those who might prefer to wait until 1996, including Gephardt, Mitchell and Rockefeller, may come under increased pressure to run this time, depending on how the shape of the campaign develops -- meaning depending on both Bush's position in the polls and whether the Democratic alternatives leave any gaps with important constituencies in the party. If, for example, Cuomo decides against running, activist liberals will be seeking a substitute other than Jesse Jackson.
But the real hazard in careful positioning is that the political universe is likely to be so much different in 1996. It is no stretch, for example, to suspect that the list of interested Democrats by that time will include six senators who have shown no overt interest in 1992 -- Tom Harkin of Iowa, Bob Graham of Florida, Joseph Biden of Delaware, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Charles Robb of Virginia and Tim Wirth of Colorado. As Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina once observed, "All senators think about it all the time."
There is, of course, an obvious risk in challenging someone who looks as imposing as Bush appears today. A Democratic candidate buried in a landslide that cost his party the Senate would have little momentum for another run in 1996. But it is equally true that a Democrat who runs a strong enough campaign in 1992 to save the party from disaster would have a claim on 1996 that some elements of his party would recognize.
Some Democrats, particularly from the South, are convinced the answer this time is a sacrificial lamb who would still be competitive enough to prevent the loss of the Senate -- specifically Lloyd Bentsen. But Bentsen is a proud and combative politician, and it is hard to imagine him simply taking the fall for his party's sake.
Indeed, the whole history of presidential politics suggests that any potential candidate with the requisite paper credentials can find a rationale for running and write a scenario that leads to the White House. Right now some of these Democrats seem to be writing scenarios for 1996 without recognizing that political opportunities cannot be arranged but only seized when they present themselves.