WASHINGTON — Washington. -- No, Virginia, there won't be a Santa Claus this Christmas; but there will be a real contest for the presidency next year.
How do I arrive at this bit of bad news-good news? By looking at the economic developments, and at the political games played by our incumbent president, over the last several days.
We know that if Virginia sees Santa Claus, he will be an anemic version of the St. Nick we've all known and loved. In the second week of October, 452,000 more Americans filed for unemployment benefits, the largest one-week number since May, when a 40-year record of jobless claims was set. At the same time, our greatest corporations were reporting drastic drops in profits and ordering massive layoffs and permanent reductions in labor force. These are not ''statistics,'' they are glaring indicators of families facing mortgage foreclosures, having cars and TV sets repossessed, losing their medical insurance and falling bereft of the credit that has for so long undergirded ''the American way of life.''
This is not an atmosphere in which mom and pop, Santa's helpers, are going to lavish Virginia, each other, or anyone else with Christmas gifts.
This stubbornly lingering recession, which may produce a more devastating son-of-recession, has become a pocketbook issue that really worries President Bush. Last week he set out to blame ''a privileged class of rulers'' in the Congress for the economic crisis. We saw him try to mute the rising anger of women, to blunt cries that he is one of America's ''new racists,'' by compromising on a civil-rights bill designed to ensure racial and gender equality in the work place. A bill only slightly better than nothing.
We saw Mr. Bush running away from any ideological paternity test to determine whether ex-Nazi Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is really a child of the GOP.
If Mr. Duke loses his bid to become governor of Louisiana and enters the 1992 presidential race inflaming racial passions about ''quotas,'' the president's new tune will be that he pressured the Congress into passing a civil-rights bill that ''saved white people from quotas.'' A suddenly worried President Bush hopes to have it both ways in issues of race, deluding women and racial minorities into believing that he delivered justice to them, even while telling Mr. Duke's soul brothers that he saved them from ''unfair preferences.''
Democrats seeking the presidency, including some undeclared ones such as New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo, watch President Bush's favorable rating fall and they suddenly are believing that Mr. Bush can be beaten, unless he comes up with an October surprise, such as launching war against Cuba.
Let no one underestimate George Bush's ruthlessness as a politician. The playing of the Willie Horton race-crime card was no aberration. Mr. Bush knows that millions of voters are angry at the Congress as an institution. So he railed against the fact that members of Congress get the best health care providable -- free -- while ordinary Americans suffer without health care and from catastrophic family illnesses. It may shock the president to learn that millions of voters know that he also gets, free, the best medical care in the world, and that he and his bloated White House staff enjoy perks that gall the nation's ordinary citizens. Yet, Mr. Bush has not led any crusade to get legislation that would guarantee decent, affordable health care to all Americans.
Mr. Bush demands reforms in the Senate confirmation process in the wake of the XXX-rated brawl over seating Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. It is as though he thinks the average American is too dumb to understand that when Mr. Bush makes a cynical, political appointment designed to pack the court with neanderthals, he will get a cynical, political confirmation process.
No one can say for sure how all this will play out in the 1992 primaries, or general election, especially if David Duke is challenging Mr. Bush. But we can say for sure that it no longer is ''conventional wisdom'' that George Bush has a lock on the White House for four more years.
Our presidential election procedures are messy, irritating, scarred by demagoguery and the corruption of big money. But sooner or later, sane judgments come to our voters as surely as Santa Claus does. That's why America's Virginias never stop believing.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.