WASHINGTON -- For the Democrats, this is the equivalent of spring training for the long campaign ahead, a time when anything seems possible. But American politics fulfills fewer "impossible dreams" than baseball, and the Democrats have miles to go in the months ahead.
At the moment, the Democrats are in a position far stronger than they ever would have imagined possible when the Persian Gulf war ended nine months ago. President Bush's approval ratings in the opinion polls have dropped to levels that make him genuinely vulnerable. The vexing problems in the economy -- and Mr. Bush's own uncertain handling of the issue -- have provided a context for challengers far more hospitable than the afterglow of an unqualified military success.
But the Democrats have paid a price for the sudden upheaval in the political landscape. Because the president appeared so imposing last spring, many of his strongest potential challengers -- on paper, at least -- took themselves out of the contest before it ever took shape.
The result is a field of six candidates of varying degrees of political weight, none of whom was even being seriously mentioned a year ago and only one or two of whom have made a dent in the national consciousness since then.
The focus on the economy has become so intense that it has to a large degree obscured other domestic issues the Democrats believe have political sting -- health care, education and abortion rights among them. If the recession continues into the fall campaign, those issues may not be needed by the challengers. But the danger from their perspective is that they will rely too heavily on an issue that could evaporate. In March, the Republicans thought Mr. Bush could be re-elected on the Persian Gulf alone.
Issues aside, the first imperative for the Democrats is finding out -- beginning with the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18 -- if they have a candidate capable of making the case against Mr. Bush and persuading American voters to take a chance on an unknown quantity.
Three of the candidates already have been assigned by the political community and press to the "second tier," meaning essentially that they have not crossed the threshold of political credibility as realistic possibilities to be nominated.
Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, whose campaign has run in fits and starts, has hurt himself by seeming to carry an easy-to-dislodge chip on his shoulder at all times. Former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California has become a scold on the single issue of the corruption of the political financing system, a concern of many voters, perhaps, but hardly one on which to win a nomination.
Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts also has found himself mired in that amorphous second tier despite the strength he has shown in opinion polls in New Hampshire, where he clearly holds an organizational lead. Mr. Tsongas is credited with being a thoughtful politician with provocative ideas for a new relationship between the Democratic Party and business. But among political professionals, he has not overcome his lack of personal force on the stump or the fact that he has been out of office since he retired from the Senate in 1984 to deal with a cancer since cured.
The three "first tier" Democrats meet more conventional standards. One is a sitting governor, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and the others are incumbent senators, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
But it would surprise no one who has watched many presidential campaigns to discover the morning after New Hampshire that at least one or perhaps two of these three Democrats have been a political mirage voters have never taken as seriously as the party activists and press, who have been the only ones following the campaign preliminaries with anything approaching close attention.
At the moment, the common wisdom is that Mr. Clinton is at least a nominal front-runner in the field since Gov. Mario M.
Cuomo of New York elected not to run. The Arkansas Democrat has shown both organizational ability, among other ways by winning a straw vote at a Florida party convention last month, and a strong personal presence as a campaigner.
Party audiences have been consistently impressed by the force and clarity of the message Mr. Clinton delivers about what's wrong with the Republicans and George Bush and what the Democrats should do about it. Although Mr. Clinton has carefully positioned himself as the most moderate or centrist Democrat with his emphasis on middle-class concerns, he has managed to win surprising support among liberal activists usually seeking out the leftist extreme.
Mr. Kerrey came into the field with advance notices as a charismatic successor to John F. Kennedy and immediately attracted many of the best and brightest of Democratic political activists in New Hampshire and elsewhere.