THE DEMOCRATIC presidential candidates have a problem and it's not just President Bush. To run a credible primary campaign costs about $25 million. How can a candidate raise that kind of money in a recession when few people believe George Bush is beatable?
The solution for the Democrats is to change the rules of the game right now. Two candidates need to join forces and run as a team, a presidential-vice presidential ticket.
With the right two candidates, the team would possess tremendous advantages in the primaries. Put two strong Democratic candidates together and the team would have twice the manpower, twice the resources, twice the media attention and immediate front-runner status. If no other such teams were formed, all other candidates would face one-on-one competition before the convention.
Such a strategy would allow the Democrats to campaign against, presumably, a Bush-Quayle ticket rather than each other. The Republicans could not easily divide and conquer the opposition.
Announcing a vice presidential candidate before the convention takes place might seem radical, but there is a precedent for such a strategy. Ronald Reagan tried it in the 11th hour of the 1976 primary season against Gerald Ford; it turned out his selection of Richard Schweiker, a liberal, was a poor one.
The Democrats obviously need to take risks in 1992. The alternatives are not any safer. If the Democrats continue to run underfunded primary election campaigns, the candidates will become increasingly dependent on media sound bites to convey their message and on special-interest groups to help get out the vote.
But if a team locked up the convention early, this might help the Democrats find party unity.
With the exception of Richard Nixon in 1960, during the last three decades the party whose candidate was first to lock up the nomination in the primaries has won the general election.
Drawn out primaries are divisive: Candidates are forced into extreme positions and become subject to the power of special-interest lobbies. Since the Democratic Party is more heterogeneous than the Republican Party, this is a particular problem.
To a large extent, such difficulties would be avoided if, early on, the Democrats could focus on one or more teams -- ideally, one. The rest could drop out of the race. In this way, the Democrats, instead of wasting money and energy on intraparty competition, could focus their sights on the Republicans from the start.
But why would anyone accept the No. 2 slot so early in the game? The reason is that an aspiring candidate might reckon that the best place to be in 1992 is the vice presidential slot. The candidate would gain invaluable campaign experience and national exposure. He would get to debate Dan Quayle. His future political career would not be over.
If the No. 2 slot sounds so good, why would anyone want the No. 1 spot? It's very simple: The Democrats might win.
Announcing the ticket from the start emphasizes the importance of the vice presidential candidate; this attacks the Republicans at their weak spot. If the tactic succeeded, it might help reform the nominating process. It's possibly the Democrats' best shot for the presidency and helps position them for 1996.
Barry Nalebuff is a professor at Yale's School of Organization and Management.