GEORGE MITCHELL says firmly that he doesn't "have any plans to run" for president next year.
The Senate majority leader does concede the question comes up more often these days than it did a few months ago -- repeatedly in questions from reporters, sometimes in suggestions from his colleagues. He is, says Mitchell, "especially flattered" when other Democratic senators urge him to run.
But none of that means he plans to run. No sir, not on your tintype. "I don't intend to run," he says. "I'm not trying to be coy."
Mitchell is quick, moreover, to say nice things about other potential candidates. He thinks Dick Gephardt would be fine. And he'd be very comfortable supporting Sam Nunn. Or Lloyd Bentsen or whomever. It is just the kind of thing potential candidates say when they want to buy time.
Even if those denials are accepted at face value, however, George Mitchell seems to be showing just enough ankle to intrigue Democratic professionals facing the reality that the campaign won't get started for several months -- meaning until some of the aura around President Bush has begun to fade.
The Maine Democrat showed up at the California state party convention last weekend, for example, to deliver a stinging partisan speech that held the attention of his audience of more than 2,000 party activists and evoked a warm response. Mitchell brushed off the California trip as just one of many he has made to speak at party functions in his role as majority leader. But, again, even if it is stipulated that he doesn't intend to run, it is just the kind of thing he would be happy to have done if he decided to do so after all.
The California speech was interesting because it showed a side of Mitchell not usually exposed on national television. As the Senate leader, he presents himself as the judicious, cerebral and articulate figure of responsibility. But in his appearances before party audiences he can be a forceful critic of the Bush administration and an impassioned advocate of the Democratic record and program on such issues as health care, the environment and civil rights.
Mitchell is not going to be drawn into the 1992 campaign by his own rhetoric, however. What makes him worth watching is the possible confluence of circumstances later this year that would confront him with intense pressure to become a candidate.
The first is the possibility -- some say likelihood -- that Gov. Mario Cuomo will decide once again to remain on the sidelines. If that happens and the nomination seems likely to fall to a Bentsen or Nunn, the left wing of the party will be seeking a champion other than Jesse Jackson.
The second is the growing likelihood that the contest for the Democratic nomination won't begin in earnest until next fall. That kind of schedule would put a premium on candidates with the built-in stature to raise enough money for the early primaries next year. That group would include Bentsen, Nunn, Cuomo, Gephardt and possibly Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and it surely also would include George Mitchell.
Mitchell himself has strong views on the matter of a different timetable from the ones that put Democrats through marathon intraparty campaigns in the last two cycles. "We ran four-year campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and look what it got us," he says. "Disastrous results."
Moreover, he points out, candidates who begin frenetic campaigning long before the caucuses and primaries find themselves dealing largely with party activists with special agendas rather than with voters. As a result, he said, the candidates get "loaded down with baggage" in trying to enlist those groups. "You've got to sign on to every decimal point," he says.
The road to success, Mitchell contends, is for Democrats to follow the path on which they have succeeded in the past by emphasizing their commitment to economic opportunity and social justice. To President Bush's call for a "new world order," Mitchell told his audience here, the Democratic reply should be "join us to put our own house in order."
There are, of course, many hurdles a Mitchell candidacy would have to clear. As a Lebanese American from Maine, he fits the definition of ethnic Northeastern liberal that seems anathema to many Democrats elsewhere. It may be that his position as majority leader carries a lot less weight with the electorate than -- is generally assumed in Washington.
But whatever he says today, George Mitchell cannot be written out of the politics of 1992.