WASHINGTON — THE RECENT travail of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia underlines a fundamental political risk for the Democrats growing out of the late start of the campaign for the party's 1992 presidential nomination -- the limited opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate whether they can play at the major league level.
There have always been questions about whether Wilder could be a serious factor in national politics. He has served less than two years as governor of a medium-sized state, which ordinarily would not qualify as an adequate credential. It is fair to say that if Wilder had not been the first black ever elected to a state governorship, the notion of his winning a place on the Democratic ticket would never have been advanced.
Now Wilder has added to questions about his political abilities by making the kind of gaffes a more experienced national politician might not have made. In one case, he misled reporters on whether he had ordered a state police investigation of his bitter intraparty rival in Virginia, Sen. Charles Robb. In the other -- and more serious -- instance, Wilder reacted to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court by questioning how much "allegiance" Thomas might owe the pope because of his background as a Roman Catholic.
Wilder has now apologized for both. He says Thomas is "eminently qualified" for the Supreme Court and that his religion "shouldn't be a badge of consideration at all." But the damage to Wilder has been done. He has projected the image of a candidate who pops off, then is obliged to retreat. If he ever had any realistic chance for the national ticket, which is doubtful indeed, it is probably down the drain.
Wilder got into hot water because he is a celebrity actively exploring a run for the presidency and, thus, being subjected to careful scrutiny by the press and political community alike. Meanwhile, however, most of the other Democrats who are likely be most serious contenders for the nomination are cruising along without similar attention. That group includes both Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York is the focus of a lot of press attention but because he is not out actively testing the waters, he isn't being forced to show his hand on national and international issues.
The only two potential candidates in a somewhat different situation are House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, both of whom ran for the nomination in 1988. Although he was vulnerable last time to charges that he had reversed himself on touchy issues, Gephardt generally got decent marks for his performance in that cycle. Gore, by contrast, showed a need for further seasoning.
There are many sound arguments that can be made against marathon presidential campaigns. They are always expensive, sometimes divisive, often meaningless because so few voters are paying attention. But they are also educational. Voters and party leaders alike learn something about potential candidates by monitoring their performances as candidates. More to the point, they learn things about candidates early enough in the process so it is not too late for (1) the candidate to clean up his act or (2) the party to find someone else. At this point in 1988 Gary Hart already had self-destructed; what if the world had learned about Donna Rice after Hart had won five primaries?
The long campaign doesn't have to produce a Donna Rice skeleton to be instructive, however. Running for president is quite unlike any other political responsibility because it subjects the candidates' personalities, associations, actions and words to such unrelenting scrutiny. This time the ordeal for the Democratic candidates clearly will be much briefer than it was four years ago.
There is no special reason to believe that a Jay Rockefeller or a Bill Clinton is going to reveal some peculiar vulnerability in campaigning for the presidential nomination. All the potential candidates in the Democratic stable are sophisticated political veterans who have run and won tough campaigns in their own states. Each of them can be expected to enlist a cadre of street-smart professional advisers who understand the hazards of presidential politics.
But until they make their intentions unmistakably clear, they won't get the kind of attention that already has compromised Doug Wilder.