WASHINGTON -- There isn't a Democratic presidential candidate in sight, but party leaders are already putting the finishing touches on their next nominee's portrait.
Finding someone who resembles that vision could be difficult, however.
Interviews with party officials and remarks by speakers at the Democratic National Committee's spring meeting, which ended yesterday, suggest that the Democrats, once again, have sharply conflicting ideas about who should head their national ticket and what its message should be.
The Democratic dilemma could be compounded in 1992 if President Bush's extraordinary popularity holds up.
With postwar polls showing American voters identifying with the Republican Party in record proportions, Democrats are more nervous than ever about protecting their majorities in the House and Senate and at the state and local level in next year's elections.
Many party and elected officials are making it clear they want to nominate an established, mainstream figure, a political moderate other Democrats could feel safe running with, rather than away from, in 1992.
"All we're interested in is somebody who wouldn't hurt us," said William B. Blount, the Alabama Democratic chairman.
That sentiment is particularly strong in the South and West, whose party leaders repeatedly mentioned Sens. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Al Gore of Tennessee and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri as acceptable candidates.
All three remain undecided about the 1992 race.
"I do think it would make a difference. With someone like a Bentsen or a Gore, you wouldn't lose a lot of congressional seats," said James Quackenbush, a Columbia, S.C., activist who ran the 1984 Democratic campaign in the South.
Nominating another liberal Northeasterner, like New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, he said, "hurts all the way down the ballot."
Resistance to a Cuomo candidacy is highest in the South, where officials worry about his left-of-center reputation and opposition to the death penalty.
Alan Stonecipher, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said voters in his state are ready for "a new vision of what the Democratic Party represents. The Democratic Party is no longer about the New Deal."
Simon Ferro, the Florida party chairman, said Mr. Cuomo would not be in the "top tier" of candidates in his state. Robert Slagle, the longtime Texas chairman, rated the prospects for a ticket headed by Mr. Cuomo as "dicey."
Elsewhere, the reverse appears to be true. Party leaders in Maine and New Hampshire, key early primary states hit especially hard by the current recession, said Mr. Cuomo would have strong appeal to Democrats worried about high unemployment and their families' economic future.
John A. Marino, the New York Democratic chairman, reported intense interest in a Cuomo candidacy from members attending a caucus of Eastern DNC members.
"People were coming up to me and saying, 'You've got to get your governor to run,' " he said.
Mr. Cuomo could be the favorite to win the nomination, if he decides to run, some analysts believe, and the governor's name ranked first yesterday in the litany of potential Democratic candidates mentioned by party chairman Ronald H. Brown.
Along with others who addressed the Democratic leaders, Mr. Brown seemed to be trying to shift blame for the party's problems to outside elements, including pundits and reporters (whom he described as "buzzards").
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley generated the only spontaneous outburst of the otherwise muted two-day gathering when he deplored the "creeping pessimism" of recent statements by unnamed Democratic political consultants.
"Those who sup at our table and sleep in our house should be supporting the Democratic Party, not knocking us," he said, his final words drowned out by cheers as hundreds of national committee members leapt to their feet and punched the air with their fists.
There was little mention of the war vote by Congress, which lies at the heart of the party's latest political slump.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., who like most Democrats voted against the use of force, prefaced his speech to the committee with several jokes on the subject, but they fell flat.
The only Democrat willing to chastise the party in public over the issue was Boston University President John Silber, who told 60 members of the Eastern caucus that "the Democratic leadership was wrong on Iraq, and they ought to read the ticker tape."
Mr. Silber, who narrowly lost a race for Massachusetts governor last fall, also had an explanation for the lack of presidential candidates: "The Democrats can't run unless the economy collapses.
"There's no appeal for a party that has to propose a recipe for disaster as a condition of winning an election," he added. "We're a sorry lot if we wish the Republicans ill so that the country can fall apart in order to elect us."