WASHINTON — THIS WAS the year the Democratic Party was going to make an early and painless decision on its presidential nominee so it could concentrate on the challenge to President Bush. Instead, for a variety of reasons, there may be more reason than usual to expect a prolonged and potentially divisive contest for the nomination.
One reason may be the lack of dominating figures in the Democratic competition since the Mario Cuomos, Bill Bradleys and Richard Gephardts decided against making the race. The leading players of the moment -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa and perhaps former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts -- each has built at least the framework of an identifiable following. The same also could be said of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the only black in the field.
It might also be fair to say that Clinton has become at least a nominal front runner in this field. But none of these Democrats -- including Clinton -- has the stature or history of relationships within the party to transform himself into a consensus candidate at an early stage of the campaign. Just the fact that the campaign began so late has made it impossible for the candidates to become as familiar to party activists and other Democrats as would be necessary for such a consensus.
The schedule of state primaries and caucuses to choose delegates to the Democratic national convention also seems to offer as much opportunity for adding to the confusion as for clarifying the situation -- unless, of course, one candidate marches through the process defeating all challengers week after week.
The Democrats made a deliberate move this year to add what politicians call "front-loading" to the process -- meaning scheduling more primaries earlier. The "window" for delegate-selection events, the officially sanctioned period, was moved forward a week to allow other states to act before the March 10 Super Tuesday when 11 are scheduled.
At one point, it appeared that California, which chooses just under 10 percent of the delegates, might adopt that March 3 date and thus skew the campaign toward an early decision. California passed on that opportunity, but seven other states will vote March 3 and three others later the same week. As a result almost one-fourth of all the delegates will have been chosen before Super Tuesday, compared to less than 6 percent four years ago.
The most intriguing thing about the new schedule, however, has far more to do with geography than delegate numbers. At this early stage of the campaign, the important thing for a candidate is less locking up numbers of delegates than projecting the image of a winner by scoring in as many states as possible. The March 3 list seems to offer several different candidates chances to win somewhere -- and thus build on success in New Hampshire Feb. 18 or recover from failure there.
There are primaries in Colorado, Maryand and Georgia (if its state legislature approves, as expected), and caucuses in Washington, Minnesota, Idaho and Utah. Thus, it is possible to foresee a situation in which Clinton wins in Georgia, Kerrey in Colorado or Washington, Harkin in Minnesota and any one of the three in Maryland -- always assuming, of course, their campaigns have not foundered hopelessly Feb. 18 in New Hampshire. And that, in turn, suggests a campaign in which there would be at least two or three candidates with some claim to continuing legitimacy in the next rounds.
But even if that is not the case -- that is, if the field is winnowed down to only one or two apparent survivors -- it is difficult to imagine the kind of consensus that would forestall further rounds of competition. Although many filing deadlines will have passed before the Super Tuesday voting, it still would be possible for a late candidate to run in several major primaries. And the Democrats choose 700-plus "super-delegates" such as members of Congress and the party's national committee; they represent about 16 percent of the total and are not bound by primary or caucus results.
It is always possible, of course, that one of the Democrats now in the field will bowl over all the competition and crystallize his party into a united supporting force. But it seems just as likely that there will be moments when Democrats will be trying to revive the candidacy of Mario Cuomo or enlist Dick Gephardt from the sidelines. Democrats rarely do things the easy way.