Washington -- AS LEADING Democratic moneybags met over the weekend at the Middleburg, Va., estate of major party moneybag Pamela Harriman to get an early start on planning for the 1992 presidential campaign, they left themselves open to the obvious accusation of putting the cart before the horse.
With only former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas a declared candidate, the field is wide open, and only now are several prospective candidates surfacing. Two of them, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, got good reviews in appearances last week before another fat-cat group called Impac, headed by Maryland developer and party state chairman Nathan Landow, and Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee remains a fair bet to make a second bid for the nomination. Others, especially Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, are keeping the faithful guessing.
Those who decide to run may have to slog through a long series of 1992 presidential primaries before the identity of the standard-bearer is known, although Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown hopes somehow to shorten the process and have the party decide on its nominee before too much Democratic blood is spilled.
Still, it makes sense for the Democrats to begin drawing plans and raising money for the 1992 general-election campaign. As Brown notes, Democrats customarily have awakened after their party conventions with a nominee but no well-established plan on how to get him elected. The party treasurer, Bob Farmer, who raised a record $56 million for party activities for the 1988 campaign, emphasizes the importance of early fund-raising to enable the Democrats to have an operation in place and humming well before their nominee is chosen, as the Republicans usually do.
Brown says all the prospective presidential candidates are behind the idea for early planning. But nominees, after surviving the primary competition, have a way of wanting to do their own planning and strategizing, so clearly there is only so much the party can impose on the standard-bearer. Elemental facts such as the nominee's regional base and ideology must be considered in shaping the election strategy.
Farmer mentions "opposition research" -- a polite way of saying trying to get the goods on George Bush -- as one of the activities the party intends to start early. The Bush campaign undid Michael Dukakis with similar research on his record as governor in 1988, unearthing the Willie Horton story, his ACLU membership and the Pledge of Allegiance rap against him. The Democrats vow that, unlike Dukakis, their 1992 nominee won't turn the other cheek when attacked, and will be well-armed to fight back.
The assumption in all this is that Bush, as in 1988, will again run an extremely negative campaign against whomever the Democrats nominate. Key figures in that campaign, after all, will be in charge in 1992 -- Secretary of Commerce Bob Mosbacher as general chairman, Detroit pollster Bob Teeter as chief strategist and White House chief of staff John Sununu as overseer of the president's time and travel, which is the key element in a re-election campaign.
But the Bush campaign "went negative" in 1988 primarily because Bush's rating with the voters was low and his managers couldn't raise it. Now, however, Bush is riding high in the polls, just as Ronald Reagan was in 1984, when many of the same GOP operatives were involved in his campaign. That campaign, whose upbeat theme was "It's Morning in America," stayed pretty much on the high road, because it didn't have to hit bottom to win. The Bush operatives have proved they can play the game either way.
The president's speech the other night on the White House lawn engaged in only some moderate Democrat-bashing focused on Congress, suggesting he may start out, at least, with a "feel-good" campaign in the Reagan style. The Democrats, however, seem determined to be ready for the worst in 1992, and ready to answer in kind if it comes.
With some Democrats like Tsongas, Harkin and Clinton beginning to speak out, the long draught of presidential nomination competition appears to be ending, although the party continues to watch and wait for Cuomo to get in or out. Meanwhile, Brown's efforts to raise early money that can help put the party on a more competitive basis is prudent, whether Bush takes the high road or the low next year.