IF YOU believe the conventional wisdom -- as voiced, for example, by the weekend political talk shows -- you'd think it was impossible for the Democrats to win the presidency in November. That was understandable when George Bush's approval rating was 91 percent. But it's puzzling when his approval rating is at 39 percent.
The conventional wisdom holds that Paul Tsongas is too weak and that Bill Clinton is crippled by questions about his personal life and his handling of the military draft in 1969. Neither is thought to be "electable."
But what if -- as sometimes happens -- the conventional wisdom is wrong? Let's assume it's just possible that the conventional wisdom is wrong this time and that a Democrat can, in fact, be elected in November. How would that happen?
First, there has to be a clear winner for the nomination. As long as there are candidates running and people voting, there's going to be a winner. You keep score by counting delegates. There are no guarantees, but the best bet today is that the nominee will be either Clinton or Tsongas, probably Clinton.
The scenario for a Tsongas victory is both simpler to conceive but more difficult to imagine. Tsongas could win if enough people like his image as an outsider, his candor and his humor. It could happen.
The scenario for a Clinton victory is a little more difficult to conceive, but easier to picture. One major reason is that Clinton appears to have a strong regional base in the South. That includes people who seem willing to go out of their way to help him. He probably had more public officials support him when he was down than all the other Democratic candidates together have had support them when they were up.
Americans, particularly Southerners, are more likely to forgive one of their own -- assuming he needs forgiveness -- than they are to forgive someone else for the same thing. A comment that a Clinton aide made to the New York Times recently may turn out to be relevant: "Bill and Hilary are celebrities now. I don't know if it's a positive or a negative. I just know it's a fact. But something in my gut tells me it's a positive, because Americans forgive celebrities."
A second factor is that if Clinton gets the nomination, we will know a great deal more about him on Election Day than we do today. What we learn will change our perceptions. So far, the more people see of Clinton, the more they seem to like him.
One of the things that will tell us something about Clinton is his choice of vice president. The conventional wisdom also holds that the vice presidential candidates don't decide elections. That's not necessarily so.
In 1976, Walter Mondale helped Jimmy Carter and Bob Dole hurt Gerald Ford. Different choices by both men might well have changed the results of the election. In 1980, Ronald Reagan's choice of George Bush, the candidate of the Republican Establishment, helped reassure voters about him.
The conventional wisdom contradicts itself by saying that the economy is the critical issue in this election and then dismissing its importance by dismissing the Democratic candidates. The determining issues in American presidential elections are peace and prosperity. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 because Americans were being held hostage in Iran and the economy was in bad shape. There was peace and prosperity in 1984 and 1988, and Reagan and Bush benefited. They had the luxury of focusing on "values" and feel-good issues. But Bush won't have that luxury this year. The more important the economy becomes, the less important everything else becomes. Finally, every election involves a choice. We do not vote up or down on the proposition that "Candidate X is perfect." We vote on the proposition, "Who is better -- at this time and in this place -- Candidate X or Candidate Y?"
If Clinton gets the nomination, he will be running against George Bush, and Bush isn't real popular right now. Questions about Bush go beyond the economy. People still don't know what he stands for. And he has raised character questions of his own; the kind of attack politics that worked against a hapless Dukakis in 1988 may well backfire this year.
Does all this mean that it's inevitable that Bush will lose? No. But it does mean that it's not inevitable that he'll win.
Jim Castelli is a syndicated columnist.