THIS IS ONE OF THOSE theories that is so way out, it's best to get on the record with it early. If your prediction comes to pass, you look like a prophet; if it doesn't, you've left plenty of time for people to forget it.
So here goes: When you look at Bill Clinton, do you see just a glimmer of the rotund profile of Grover Cleveland?
There are a lot of similarities between Mr. Clinton and the New York Democrat who won the presidency by a 29,000-vote margin in 1884. Both battled similar "character issues" -- Cleveland sat out the Civil War and was accused of having an illegitimate son. Cleveland, like Mr. Clinton, had a weight problem and pulled late-night work sessions in the White House.
But what sparks this theory is what makes Cleveland, so far, unique among presidents: He is the only one to be defeated in a race for a second term, and then get elected again four years later.
The political cycle could be in line for history to repeat itself.
Cleveland was a Democrat who came along at a time when Republicans were consolidating their earlier gains and setting the stage for a long reign as the nation's majority party. He got a larger majority of popular votes in 1888 than he had in his first election, but was unable to break the GOP's lock on the big states and lost to Benjamin Harrison by 233 electoral votes to 168.
Cleveland stuck to an independent line, breaking with his own party on some important issues, and achieved comeback success by sailing against the political wind. In 1892, he trounced Harrison in a landslide.
In the 1996 race, Mr. Clinton has problems similar to Cleveland's in 1888. Although polls show him bouncing back in popularity, it's very difficult to see how he can put together the electoral majority he needs.
But if Mr. Clinton makes a real battle of next year's election -- especially if he matches Cleveland's feat and loses with a popular majority -- he could be poised to be the Comeback Kid in 2000.
Clinton's done it
That would be no small feat in this modern era, but Mr. Clinton already has the habit. He lost his second race for governor of Arkansas in 1980, and returned two years later to win back the office, which he kept until he was elected president.
In many ways the disarray of the Democrats and the brimming self-confidence of the Republicans work to the advantage of such a scenario. For all the dissatisfaction with him, Mr. Clinton remains his party's foremost political talent, and the sheer number of retirements and election defeats suffered by Democrats tends to clear the field for the next presidential election after this one.
On the other hand, the Republicans, like their counterparts of the Gilded Age, may have a tendency to overreach and alarm the American voter if they take over both Congress and the White House. If what voters in 2000 remember about the Clinton administration is that they had a job and their parents could afford heart surgery, then what he said about gays in the military is going to seem awfully distant.
Mr. Clinton will be 54 when the election is held in November 2000. He'll have more political experience than any figure on the American scene, assuming Bob Dole isn't running for re-election. If he doesn't thread the electoral needle and prevail in next year's race, you still can't count him out. After all, it has happened before.
hTC Tom Baxter is chief political writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.