Washington -- DEMOCRATIC professionals -- including some of the party's most prominent leaders -- have begun discussing among themselves the possibility of drawing another candidate into the competition for the presidential nomination if Gov. Bill Clinton proves to have been compromised by accusations of marital infidelity.
The impetus for the conversations comes from a rough consensus among Democratic insiders that none of Mr. Clinton's competitors for the nomination has yet established himself as a strong enough campaigner to be a legitimate challenger to President Bush in the general election. Many Democrats are particularly dismayed at the failure of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska to mount a stronger campaign.
The scenarios being discussed by the Democrats all would be triggered by a result in the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary that would leave the party without an acknowledged front-runner with strong momentum. That situation could develop if Mr. Clinton's current lead in the opinion polls there dissolves because of the continuing controversy over his personal life.
If that happens -- and with the primary still three weeks away it is obviously too early to know -- the favorite in New Hampshire probably would be former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, whom the professionals remain convinced is not a viable candidate for the general election. Mr. Kerrey is also within hailing distance of Mr. Clinton in current polls but has yet to persuade the political community he can be a credible challenger to Mr. Bush.
The Democratic talk of an alternative centers on three party heavyweights who earlier decided against running: Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the 1988 vice presidential nominee; House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and, of course, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.
Although the filing deadlines for some major state primaries will have passed before the New Hampshire vote, enough would remain open for a late candidate to be competitive. In addition, there will be 688 so-called superdelegates -- about 16 percent of the total -- who will be chosen as officially unpledged, open to persuasion and looking first for someone who could win.
In the eyes of Democratic professionals, each of the potential late-starting candidates has some obvious pluses and minuses. Sen. Bentsen won widespread admiration among Democrats for his performance as the running mate to Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 and would be considered the safest choice politically. He also would offer a realistic chance of carrying Texas and perhaps some other Southern and Western states Bush considers part of his base. But Mr. Bentsen's candidacy might evoke a negative response from liberal Democrats, perhaps including Jesse Jackson, who consider him too conservative.
Similarly, although Gov. Cuomo could be expected to galvanize the liberals, his candidacy almost certainly would cause some muttering among conservatives, particularly in the South, seeking a like-minded substitute for Mr. Clinton. Mr. Cuomo decided not to run last month, pleading that the unresolved state budget crisis made it impossible.
Mr. Gephardt's decision against running while Mr. Bush was riding high in the opinion polls last summer was widely viewed as an attempt to position himself for a better opportunity in 1996. And many pros agreed believed he would not be a strong candidate against Mr. Bush because he was too much just another Washington insider. But Mr. Bush's weakness in the polls and his clumsy campaigning have made a centrist professional such as Mr. Gephardt look more attractive, particularly since he has gained such a strong identification with the trade issue.
All of this speculation among the Democrats may come to nothing. If Mr. Clinton is able to win New Hampshire, his success may be taken as evidence he has neutralized the issue of his personal life. If Mr. Clinton falls short, it is still possible that one of his rivals will score heavily and become the Democratic flavor of the month.
But many Democratic leaders are uneasy about a less positive possibility -- a situation in which the party emerges from the New Hampshire primary without a candidate who seems to have the political stamina to go the route. If that happens, it will be time to go to the bench.