DO REPUBLICANS have a self-esteem problem? A terminal case of shyness? A lack of ambition?
At a moment when their party considers Bill Clinton eminently beatable in 1996, a slew of Republican candidates is coming up lame at the presidential starting gate.
Newt Gingrich, whose sharp-edged rhetoric would have enlivened the '96 torpor, is the latest no-show. He joins Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and William Bennett among the GOP's reluctant bulls.
You sense a whiff of hypocrisy in these withdrawals from the '96 arena.
Newt Gingrich says he won't run for president because he'd rather be speaker of the House.
"I hardly need to run for president to get my message out," says Mr. Gingrich, claiming he'd rather stay in the House and work on "renewing American civilization and ending the welfare state."
Dan Quayle, on the other hand, gives an alibi worn to the nub by Washington politicians when they wave a white flag.
"We were convinced a winning campaign could be accomplished," he said, "but we chose to put our family first."
Pardon the cynicism, but Messrs. Gingrich and Quayle are guilty of double-talk.
There are two believable reasons why a healthy, ambitious politician refuses to run for president: (a) he knows in his heart he can't win; (b) he doesn't want to endure the campaign aggravation.
What you usually hear, though, is self-serving malarkey.
Is it reasonable that Mr. Gingrich, with his lust for a national forum and power, would rather be the $160,000-a-year speaker of the House than a $200,000-a-year president with unequaled clout?
Nope. In truth, Mr. Gingrich has the highest unfavorable ratings of any politician on the American scene. He's a hero to the Republican right, but Newt's radical, machine-gun patter would wear thin as a national candidate. Like most House members -- Democrat Dick Gephardt was the last dreamer -- he'd face an uphill presidential run.
Why not duck the harassment, stick with his current glory and pick up millions from Rupert Murdoch's book deal?
Mr. Quayle's insistence that he withdrew from the '96 scrimmage to "forgo the disruption to our [family] lives" is more spurious.
More truthfully, Mr. Quayle could not win the GOP nomination because he couldn't shake his reputation as a lightweight whose brain cells concentrated on his golf score. While he was vice president, polls held steady -- most Americans flinched at the idea of President Quayle.
"Quayle thinks he'll run in 1997," yakked Jay Leno in a parting shot. The sarcasm of Mr. Leno and David Letterman long ago --ed ice water on Dan Quayle as a White House contender.
The horror of having to raise $20 million -- entry fee for the presidential romp -- supposedly discouraged Mr. Quayle. "Told he'd have to hold 200 fund-raising events, he rolled his eyes," a Quayle insider said.
Granted, the dial-for-dollars madness of 1996 politics is a legitimate reason to skip the rat race. Who wants to roost in a hotel room six hours a day and make pleading phone calls for bucks? By one guess, a late starter such as Dan Quayle must hustle $82,000 a day for the next year.
But the fat-wallet folks who contribute to Republicans wouldn't bankroll Mr. Quayle because they foresaw disaster. It's a depressing reality: Money guys want to bet on winners.
Jack Kemp also cited lack of enthusiasm for raising millions when he backed out of the '96 circus. But Mr. Kemp, once heralded as Ronald Reagan's heir, had fallen out of sync with Gingrich-era Republicans. Mr. Kemp's supply-side gospel and "big tent" tolerance -- meaning, open the GOP to blacks and Hispanics -- was unfashionable.
The truth about Messrs. Quayle, Kemp, Gingrich, Cheney, Bennett and any other Republican withdrawals is stark: They wouldn't start the painful road show because they couldn't win.
You can apply the same ruthless tests to Democratic heavyweights who let Bill Clinton have an open 1992 highway. Mario Cuomo, despite his eloquent protests, eschewed the '92 race because of doubts that an Italian-American governor could win the South and because of his aversion to the marathon's humiliations.
The no-shows make the Republican field less compelling -- basically a two-man senatorial rumble between Bob Dole and Phil Gramm. The secondary dreamers -- Lamar Alexander, Arlen Specter, Pat Buchanan and Bob Dornan -- are long shots driven by ego or ideology.
The epidemic of dropouts plus hard-eyed conservative images of Messrs. Dole and Gramm should give hope to Bill Clinton. Unless, that is, a Whitewater scandal bomb makes Mr. Clinton the ultimate no-show.
The last candid politician who quit the presidential trail was Walter Mondale in the '70s, when he snapped, "I don't want to spend a year of my life in Holiday Inns."
At least he didn't blame his family or his dog or phony modesty. Please, spare us the sham alibis: Just admit you can't take the heat of a doomed cause.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.