Washington -- The decision by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV against seeking the presidency next year is obviously a kick in the teeth of the Democratic Party. But it also may change the dynamics of the presidential campaign by intensifying the pressure to run on Gov. Mario Cuomo and perhaps Sen. Albert Gore Jr.
Coming on the heels of a similar announcement two weeks ago from House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Jay Rockefeller's swan dive reinforces the picture of the Democrats as a party so intimidated by President Bush that no one with any political capital to risk is willing to take a chance on 1992.
And it is a picture that can only be dissolved if the Democrats produce some heavyweight candidates who send the message that Bush may be formidable but he is clearly not unbeatable. None of the candidates now in the field, declared or de facto, sends such a message.
There are, to be sure, arguments that can be made for former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Each has totally legitimate credentials for the presidency, and each has politically attractive ideas to advance in the 1992 campaign. But none of them has either the history or reputation to qualify automatically as serious players in the presidential equation. They may achieve that credibility, but they haven't done so yet.
Rockefeller was an interesting possibility, first, simply because of his name. Although he has made a generally liberal record in eight years in the Senate, his prime identification as a potential candidate was less his ideology than his celebrity as a Rockefeller. He seemed to be the kind of Democrat who could occupy the party's middle ground without causing the kind of intraparty polarization that Democrats most fear. Moreover, many Democrats were intrigued by his identification with the "right" issues -- child care and health care -- and with the evidence of a strongly hostile view of George Bush.
Thus, his withdrawal after three months of testing the waters leaves a more conspicuous vacuum than would have been the case if he had not flirted so openly with a campaign. He now becomes just another prominent Democrat who seems to think 1996 would be a more auspicious time to advance his acknowledged ambitions for the White House. The list is long.
Of the candidates already in play, it is Clinton who probably stands to gain the most from the Rockefeller decision. The Arkansas Democrat has shared Rockefeller's interest in those cutting-edge domestic issues and is likely to be perceived as the most centrist of the potential Democratic nominees. Although he is essentially unknown to the electorate at large, Clinton has earned a reputation within the political community as a forceful and effective campaigner. His long, rambling speech at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta has been largely forgiven and forgotten because of the skill he has shown in subsequent speeches.
But the most significant change in the dynamics of the campaign is likely to be the pressure on Cuomo from liberals who suspect Clinton because of his role as chairman of the moderately conservative Democratic Leadership Council and who are not yet convinced that Harkin, the one unapologetic liberal in the mix, could be a credible opponent for Bush. Harkin has been evoking a warm response from audiences of party activists in the last few months, but he is seen by many less liberal Democrats as too much the lineal descendant of George McGovern and Walter Mondale.
Cuomo has insisted all along that he has "no plans and no plans to make plans" to run for the 1992 nomination. But he has left the door ajar just enough to titillate other politicians, most of whom seem convinced he would be the automatic frontrunner if he decided to make the race.
If Cuomo does run, however, there is the distinct possibility of a scarring polarization within the party. Southern Democrats in particular could be expected to line up behind either Clinton or, if he runs, Gore in a de facto anyone-but-Cuomo movement. Their doubts about another northeastern liberal nominee have been well-advertised. And there is already some bad blood between Clinton and Cuomo reflected in several recent exchanges in the press.
The bottom line is that Jay Rockefeller's decision to sit this one out can mean far more than simply adding another name to the list of those who find President Bush too daunting a challenge next year.