WASHINGTON — "This is not your normal run of Democratic candidates," former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas says of himself and the other seekers after the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. "There are a lot of free thinkers, a lot of people who are unpredictable."
Tsongas' assessment, widely adhered to among party leaders and independent analysts, points up the two overriding realities governing the Democrats' prospects for regaining the White House after five defeats in the last six elections.
The first is that President Bush is currently so strong that the best known and the most established Democrats have been discouraged from entering the race, and even the less prominent candidates have greatly delayed kicking off their campaigns.
The second reality, which is drawing Tsongas and his rivals into the fray, is that the circumstances now making Bush seem invincible could change--enough to make the Democrats competitive in next year's battle. Although the events in the Soviet Union have dominated the spotlight--and buoyed the President's standing--voter uneasiness over the precarious state of the economy remains high, and events could turn against Bush in other arenas as well.
And party professionals believe that the current crop of contenders will gain stature with time and exposure. "When you are running against an incumbent President, you always start off looking small," said Michael Ford, a veteran of the Walter F. Mondale campaign. "All these guys are going to seem bigger once they start running."
Meanwhile, because of the relative obscurity of the candidates, the brief time they have had to prepare and the limited financial resources they can command, uncertainity prevails about how the campaign will be waged.
"It's like the world before creation, unformed and void," said pollster Mark Mellman, an adviser to the 1988 campaign of Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., one of many prominent Democrats who chose to watch the 1992 campaign from the sidelines.
So far, only three nationally prominent Democrats have formally announced their candidacies: Tsongas, who declared last April; Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who took the plunge last week, and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who followed suit last Sunday.
Expected to declare themselves shortly are Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
A possible late entrant, Oklahoma Rep. Dave McCurdy, like Clinton a leader in the centrist-minded Democratic Leadership Council, said last week that he was "seriously considering" seeking the nomination.
And other possibilities include New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, although he insists he has no plans to run, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, although many believe he will choose to be host of a television talk show instead.
About all that is clear about the field is that none of them can be considered a front-runner in the race for the nomination. And all of them start out as decided underdogs when stacked up against Bush.
The President's standing in the polls, which soared to record heights last February after the 100-hour triumph of the Gulf War, remains high. And his lead in polling matchups against Democratic presidential possibilities is of historic proportions.
A July survey taken for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed Bush beating Cuomo, the top choice of Democratic voters, by a margin of 60% to 30%. Only once since presidential polling began in 1936 has either party been that far ahead at this stage of the quadrennial--in 1951, when Dwight D. Eisenhower led Harry S. Truman by more than 2 to 1. (Truman opted not to seek reelection.)
But, as Democrats know only too well, poll results can change with time. In October of 1983, a Gallup poll showed Republican President Ronald Reagan trailing Democrat Mondale by 44% to 50%. In the election, Mondale carried only one state--his own Minnesota.
Anyway, Democrats say being an underdog and an insurgent could turn out to be the key to success in 1992, pointing to Truman's upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.
"We are a nation that loves underdogs," said Larry K. Smith, who helped plan the early strategy for Gary Hart's 1984 campaign.
And, despite the poll results in Bush's favor, Democrats cite other numbers that they contend demonstrate his vulnerability unless the economy, now struggling to emerge from recession, regains its Reagan era zip.
As evidence of public anxiety about the economy, they point to August declines in both the consumer confidence index of the Conference Board, a business research group, and the "consumer comfort" rating of ABC News and Money magazine. The latter dropped to -38 on a scale from +100 to -100, down from an average of -24 in 1990 and -11 in 1989.
Taking into account all the ifs and buts, the bottom line question remains: Can the Democrats defeat a war-winning commander-in-chief who has managed to ingratiate himself with nearly every sector of the citizenry?