WASHINGTON -- It may be a sign of things to come or simply a fluke, but the presidential contest about to get under way is shaping up like no previous campaign:
Shorter. With more real debate on the issues. And, just maybe, more appealing to the voters.
There will be less day-to-day coverage by network television, the engine that has driven presidential politics for a generation. Cutbacks in network news budgets are forcing correspondents to give up their seats on campaign planes.
Indeed, there may not be many chartered campaign planes, as candidates attempt to stretch scarce resources. Even Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV plans to take scheduled commercial flights as much as possible, say aides to the prospective presidential candidate.
Campaign treasuries are likely to be lean, and not only because times are tough for big contributors. According to current projections, there is a real danger that the federal government could run short of matching money next year, because fewer and fewer taxpayers are giving to the fund.
With the race squeezed into a shorter, sharper time frame, debates could play an enhanced role.
"I believe the country is dying for a debate on the fundamentals. I think they feel they were robbed of that debate in 1984 and 1988," said John Sasso, who managed the 1988 campaign of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. "We [the Dukakis campaign] should have been more forceful on the issues, on the case for change."
The force driving many of these changes is President Bush's political dominance and the widespread belief that he will be all but unbeatable next year. Viewed in this light, which is how many political veterans see it, the 1992 campaign is simply an aberration, the product of a highly popular war that found Democrats on the wrong side at the outset.
"It's a fluke," said Robert Shrum, a Democratic media consultant. "People would have been running by last September or October had it not been for Saddam Hussein."
But in campaigns, what works becomes the new standard. And if the '92 model succeeds, its style could become the new politics of the 1990s.
"The Democrats seem to be freed up to talk about what is on
their minds, because the conventional wisdom is they don't have a snowball's chance in hell. . . . The irony is, it could lead them to the White House in 1992," said Richard C. Harwood, a Bethesda-based researcher who recently completed a study of voter attitudes for the Kettering Foundation, concluding that Americans care deeply about politics but think their own concerns aren't reflected in campaigns.
An important question is how the voters will respond to the new-look presidential campaign. According to some experts, they'll scarcely see it.
"There's not going to be a campaign," grumped one ABC News executive, "because we won't cover it."
From the pivotal Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 to the masterful, made-for-TV Reagan and Bush campaigns of the 1980s, network television has been the dominant force in American politics. But shrinking audiences, more competition from cable TV and a profit squeeze brought on by the high cost of Persian Gulf war coverage have brought steep cuts in the news departments at ABC, CBS and NBC.
Whether Democrats can get their message across, at a time of curtailed coverage, will depend largely on the missing ingredients of the '92 campaign, the candidates themselves. Only one Democrat, former Sen. Paul Tsongas, has announced thus far; by contrast, the last time Democrats took on an incumbent president, in 1984, six candidates had already entered the race by this point.
Decision time will soon be at hand, though, for a half-dozen hopefuls. And most politicians believe the campaign will begin in earnest around Labor Day.
On the verge of jumping in are Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Senator Rockefeller of West Virginia. Others who will make their plans known soon include Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee and Govs. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia. Two of the party's best-known figures, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, may decide later this fall.
Mr. Bush's popularity, enhanced by last winter's gulf war, is already credited with scaring one potential Democratic contender from the race, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and it could lead several others to wait until 1996.
But polls show that most Americans believe the country has gotten off on the wrong track, and analysts say such factors as the condition of the economy over the next 15 months will go a long way toward determining whether the Democratic convention in New York City next July crowns a nominee who can win in November.
Network plans of sharply scaled back prime-time coverage of next summer's conventions are already drawing strenuous protests from both major parties, which have become adept at converting their suspenseless national conventions into weeklong campaign commercials.