Washington -- THE most notable feature of the expected field of 1992 Democratic presidential candidates is that none of them is known as a member of the party's Washington establishment. There likely will be, two governors, Bill Clinton of Arkansaska, and Doug Wilder of Virginia, two free-wheeling senators not seen as members of "The Club," Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and a former senator, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, whose self-description as a "pro-business Democrat" puts him off the establishment reservation.
This fact raises an interesting question about the role of Washington establishment Democrats in the nomination process, especially because the 1992 delegate-selection rules provide that 80 percent of Democratic House and Senate members will get a free ride to the nominating convention as "superdelegates" who need not be pledged to any candidate. This bloc of about 260 establishment types could play a somewhat different role in the outcome of the nomination fight from that fulfilled by a similar congressional bloc in 1984.
Then, most of the congressional superdelegates were locked up early by an old colleague, former Vice President Walter Mondale. They were chosen in January, prior to the first contests for delegates in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Mondale's political lieutenants moved swiftly to sew them up to give the Mondale candidacy an aura of invincibility.
This time, however, there is no comparable member or former member of the congressional establishment club in the prospective field, and the superdelegates are not to be chosen until March in the House and April in the Senate, after the first series of state caucuses and primaries.
The Democratic congressional leaders, not having a conspicuous favorite in the Mondale mold this time around, decided to hold off naming their superdelegates and see what those first state contests produce.
As a result, this bloc of superdelegates -- plus about 400 members of the Democratic National Committee and other officeholders also unelected and unpledged -- will be in position either to provide a critical boost to the early frontrunner or try to -- water on his momentum. If that frontrunner is not to the liking of these establishment Democrats, they could decide to take the latter course, possibly by pressuring one of their own to enter the fray for the later primaries and caucuses.
This is the scenario whereby supporters of such establishment figures as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt who have declined to run would hope to induce their favorites to change their minds. One of the objectives in creating the superdelegates after the 1980 election was to "save" the party from a bad choice (meaning another Jimmy Carter) by bringing the wisdom of experienced politicians into the decision-making.
Such a tactic, however, could play into the hands of a Democrat running as an anti-establishment candidate, as all of the prospective competitors for the nomination now appear poised to do. With a head of steam out of the early primaries and caucuses, the frontrunner could point to the "interference" of the old politicians with the expressed voice of the voters, while raising questions about faint hearts who opted not to run at the outset against a supposedly invincible Republican incumbent.
It would be extremely difficult, moreover, to launch a new candidacy that late in the game. Filing deadlines for all but the last primaries in California, New Jersey and a few smaller states will be passed by the time the superdelegates are chosen and can take any concerted action to bring a new candidate into the running.
Any late challenge by a new "superdelegates' candidate" would be a nightmare to Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown, who has been laboring long and hard to avoid a long and divisive fight for the presidential nomination. Brown would like the competing Democrats to aim their campaigns at President Bush and have the early primary losers bow out gracefully so that the frontrunner and the party can concentrate on the fall election, as Bush will be able to do from the start.
But if the frontrunner heads the pack by bashing the Democratic establishment, and that establishment seeks to curb him with a superdelegates' alternative, there could be more intra-party sparks than Brown or any other establishment Democrat would want to see.