WASHINGTON -- As the Democratic presidential candidates prepare to make their network television debut tonight, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has emerged as the leading member of the cast. But the real star may still be waiting offstage.
The six announced contenders meet in their first nationally broadcast debate this evening. And because Mr. Clinton is the red-hot candidate right now, he won't be surprised to find himself the recipient of many of his rivals' verbal jabs.
"It's a contact sport," he says with a casual shrug. "It's OK."
Though he may be the target of some punches, the favorite in the early polls, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, won't be there.
Mr. Cuomo wasn't invited to participate in the NBC program, the first in a proposed series of seven primary debates to be sponsored by broadcast and cable networks, because he has yet to say he is running.
But his high-profile flirtation with a presidential candidacy has helped freeze the race over the past two months by keeping potential campaign aides and contributors on the sidelines, deflecting media attention from those actively running and giving voters in early primary states an excuse for not making up their minds.
The calendar is about to force Mr. Cuomo into announcing some sort of decision, however. Next Friday is the deadline for entering the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary, the first important test of 1992.
In the view of some Democratic veterans, Mr. Cuomo's absence means this evening's debate will be largely irrelevant to the evolution of the '92 race. But the candidates and their advisers see the event as a chance to make a good first impression and a rare opportunity to get badly needed national exposure.
"The cumulative coverage of all the candidates is less than any one candidate got in 1988 at this point. Nobody knows who these people are," said Harrison Hickman, an adviser to one of the lesser-known contenders, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
Indeed, one recent national poll found that three-quarters of those questioned didn't know enough about most of the candidates to express an opinion.
Party politicians have been watching them closely for months, however, and a rough consensus has emerged about the strengths and weaknesses of the various contenders.
Mr. Clinton, at 45 the nation's senior governor in length of service, has impressed many with crisply delivered speeches that reflect his command of domestic policy issues.
He has begun attracting support from leading elected officials around the country and especially in the South, where a major round of early primaries will be held in March.
His Southern strength will be tested today in a straw vote at the Florida Democratic convention in Orlando. The Clinton campaign has invested considerable time and money in the non-binding ballot, even though such contests often turn out to be almost meaningless.
Mr. Clinton's swift rise has made him the object of increasing attacks from other candidates.
One day last week, his plan to offer young people college loan money in exchange for voluntary national service as teachers or poverty workers was labeled a "bribe" by Mr. Kerrey, while his middle-class tax-cut initiative was derided by two other rivals as an ineffective remedy for the nation's economic ills.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who made perhaps the best initial impression of any of the candidates, has raised the most money, a crucial advantage in primary politics, although the sums this year are far below the levels of past campaigns. He also has considerable backing from labor unions, another important edge.
Mr. Harkin's popularity with organized labor has made him a co-favorite with Mr. Clinton in today's Florida straw ballot. But his failure to go beyond the emotional rhetoric of his speeches and offer more detailed proposals has prompted increasing criticism.
A growing perception that Mr. Harkin's candidacy has stalled was reinforced by recent polls in New Hampshire, which failed to show him making significant progress. The New Hampshire contest is considered crucial to his chances, since the Iowa senator's home-state advantage makes him the prohibitive favorite to win the Feb. 10 precinct caucuses there.
If there has been a candidate who has failed to live up to his advance notices, it would be Mr. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam whose good looks and charismatic presence made him the choice of some Democrats even before they had a chance to hear him speak. His uneven performance on the stump, however, and a lack of coordination within a campaign organization stocked with talented veterans have made him an early disappointment.
"There's this puzzlement," said one well-placed Democrat on Capitol Hill. "People want to like Bob Kerrey. They've heard he is a great candidate, but when is he going to show it?"
There is still ample time for Mr. Kerrey to catch fire, of course, and his aides say they believe he is making good progress. But they concede he has fallen short of his early goals.