WASHINGTON — Washington. -- We have learned not to scoff when an outwardly modest Southern governor comes to Washington and talks about moving to the White House. The last one fooled lots of people. This one is taller, smoother and more worldly wise, but he still says his main disadvantage is that ''I'm virtually anonymous.''
Actually, Bill Clinton has a name, a punchy one suitable for football or politics. What he means is, he's almost unknown because he's from a small state with no major media outlets.
But he is well known as the governor of Arkansas -- a younger-looking 45-year-old with an admirable head of hair, who jokes about making a too-long keynote speech at the last Democratic convention and says up front that he's not going to answer questions about his personal life. That's who he is; what he is, politically, is harder to say.
In the suddenly busy field of Democratic contenders, Tom Harkin is a proud populist, Doug Wilder a fiscal conservative and Paul Tsongas a pro-business heretic. Mr. Clinton is not officially a candidate, but expects to be in a couple of weeks. Asked whether he falls on left or right, he says ''My ideas embrace both,'' and it would be a ''big trap'' for the Democrats to get into a left-right fight in the primaries.
Liberalism is all very well as a party tradition, he maintains, but ''it's not enough.'' He lists ways he has departed from liberal orthodoxy as governor: choice of public schools; welfare reform; requiring the mothers of welfare children to name the fathers, who are then held responsible as parents; capital punishment. He is pro-choice on abortion, but signed a parental-notice bill. He is for affirmative action, but against quotas -- and emphatically says the 1991 measure is not a ''quota bill'' as asserted by the administration.
What the Democrats should do before they start Bush-bashing is ''define the Democratic agenda first,'' he says. Agenda-defining is one way politicians vamp while making up their minds whether and when to start bashing. Mr. Clinton, as head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, is expert at it. You can see his mind running down a tabular outline of solutions to whatever problem comes up.
A Rhodes scholar, he is no lightweight in brains, experience or personality. What he has not yet perfected is a distinct political line for 1992. ''In any great country, national security has to begin at home,'' he says, which hardly sets him apart from every other Democrat on the horizon. So far, the gist of his campaign is the slogan, ''I've been there.''
As governor off and on since 1978, he has faced every kind of problem, specifically the tax burden thrown onto states by the Reagan and Bush administrations. His achievements against that trend include successful education, job creation and infant-child health care programs.
When he tried out his lines at breakfast with reporters the other day, he brought his media consultant, making notes to polish the act before his formal announcement. He also brought his wife, which is not something politicians usually do.
He had his reasons. One is that Hillary Clinton, whom he met while both of them were at Yale Law School with Clarence Thomas, is smart, attractive and not bashful. The other is that back home in Arkansas, opponents circulated rumors about his private life, trying to end his ambitions the way Gary Hart's ended with Donna Rice.
The governor said then that he was not going to answer any questions that begin with ''Have you ever . . . ?'' Naturally, that has inspired still more questions, and when one came at breakfast he was waiting for it.
''Hillary and I have been together for almost 20 years,'' he began. He said they were happy and committed, but their marriage, like others, has not been perfect. ''We intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now,'' he added, and she nodded.
On that subject, that was that. But before they left she spoke up, too, about how hard it is ''to step out of private life into a situation where you have to be facile, quick, in 30-second sound bites.''
It's hard, but she and her husband mastered that step years ago. The one they have to watch is that next one. After it, the sound bites start biting back.