WASHINGTON -- It may be a sign of things to come or simply a fluke, but the presidential contest about to get under way is shaping up like no previous campaign:
Shorter. With more real debate on the issues. And, just maybe, more appealing to the voters.
There will be less day-to-day coverage by network television, the engine that has driven presidential politics for a generation. Cutbacks in network news budgets are forcing correspondents to give up their seats on campaign planes.
Indeed, there may not be many chartered campaign planes, as candidates attempt to stretch scarce resources. Even Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV plans to take scheduled commercial flights as much as possible, say aides to the prospective presidential candidate.
Campaign treasuries are likely to be lean, and not only because times are tough for big contributors. According to current projections, there is a real danger that the federal government could run short of matching money next year, because fewer and fewer taxpayers are giving to the fund.
With the race squeezed into a shorter, sharper time frame, debates could play an enhanced role.
"I believe the country is dying for a debate on the fundamentals. I think they feel they were robbed of that debate in 1984 and 1988," said John Sasso, who managed the 1988 campaign of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. "We [the Dukakis campaign] should have been more forceful on the issues, on the case for change."
The force driving many of these changes is President Bush's political dominance and the widespread belief that he will be all but unbeatable next year. Viewed in this light, which is how many political veterans see it, the 1992 campaign is simply an aberration, the product of a highly popular war that found Democrats on the wrong side at the outset.
"It's a fluke," said Robert Shrum, a Democratic media consultant. "People would have been running by last September or October had it not been for Saddam Hussein."
But in campaigns, what works becomes the new standard. And if the '92 model succeeds, its style could become the new politics of the 1990s.
"The Democrats seem to be freed up to talk about what is on
their minds, because the conventional wisdom is they don't have a snowball's chance in hell. . . . The irony is, it could lead them to the White House in 1992," said Richard C. Harwood, a Bethesda-based researcher who recently completed a study of voter attitudes for the Kettering Foundation, concluding that Americans care deeply about politics but think their own concerns aren't reflected in campaigns.
An important question is how the voters will respond to the new-look presidential campaign. According to some experts, they'll scarcely see it.
"There's not going to be a campaign," grumped one ABC News executive, "because we won't cover it."
From the pivotal Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 to the masterful, made-for-TV Reagan and Bush campaigns of the 1980s, network television has been the dominant force in American politics. But shrinking audiences, more competition from cable TV and a profit squeeze brought on by the high cost of Persian Gulf war coverage have brought steep cuts in the news departments at ABC, CBS and NBC.
Whether Democrats can get their message across, at a time of curtailed coverage, will depend largely on the missing ingredients of the '92 campaign, the candidates themselves. Only one Democrat, former Sen. Paul Tsongas, has announced thus far; by contrast, the last time Democrats took on an incumbent president, in 1984, six candidates had already entered the race by this point.
Decision time will soon be at hand, though, for a half-dozen hopefuls. And most politicians believe the campaign will begin in earnest around Labor Day.
On the verge of jumping in are Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Senator Rockefeller of West Virginia. Others who will make their plans known soon include Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee and Govs. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia. Two of the party's best-known figures, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, may decide later this fall.
Mr. Bush's popularity, enhanced by last winter's gulf war, is already credited with scaring one potential Democratic contender from the race, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and it could lead several others to wait until 1996.
But polls show that most Americans believe the country has gotten off on the wrong track, and analysts say such factors as the condition of the economy over the next 15 months will go a long way toward determining whether the Democratic convention in New York City next July crowns a nominee who can win in November.
Network plans of sharply scaled back prime-time coverage of next summer's conventions are already drawing strenuous protests from both major parties, which have become adept at converting their suspenseless national conventions into weeklong campaign commercials.
Of potentially greater significance, however, are the projected cutbacks in political travel by network correspondents, increased reliance on local affiliates for candidate coverage and a shrinking appetite for campaign stories on the evening news. For example, only one of the three network evening newscasts gave more than a few seconds to the story of Mr. Tsongas' announcement last spring.
Though two cable networks, CNN and C-SPAN, are expanding their campaign coverage, cable reaches fewer than two-thirds of the nation's households, and viewership for cable news programs is a fraction of the networks' audiences.
Critics say these changes could directly influence the outcome of the race.
"If this already had been in effect in 1984, Gary Hart would have been nominated very quickly," argued Mark Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
Even Republicans concede that Democrats are right when they complain that curtailed coverage would make it harder for them to get their anti-Bush messages through to voters. Politicians also predict that paid advertising by the candidates will fill the gap created by less air time for political news.
Others, however, contend that cutting down on the day-to-day coverage of events on the campaign trail may actually improve the quality of what goes on the air.
And those changes might have happened in the absence of belt-tightening by news organizations because of widespread unhappiness among reporters and editors over the way the 1988 campaign was covered. Many journalists believe that they were manipulated by the campaigns into covering meaningless events and that the press failed to do an adequate job of policing negative campaign commercials.
If the networks devote more effort to researching candidates' records and less time photographing "pseudo-events" staged by the campaigns, "this may be one of the best things that's happened to political coverage," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "The press could become a player in a debate that has some relevance to governance."
Budget cuts at the networks and at newspapers may also mean fewer public opinion polls during the campaign, another positive step in the view of critics such as Dr. Jamieson, who believes the news media's focus on polls and inside strategy has distorted the election process.
So far, the press can hardly be faulted for not covering a race that has scarcely begun. In a way, the 1992 contest marks a return to the late-starting campaigns of the pre-1976 era, which typically got under way at the start of the election year.
"Candidates don't want to have to go out and campaign 'D door-to-door for two or three years. I think everybody knows that you're really taxing your physical limits," said Paul Goldman, Mr. Wilder's top political adviser.
The delayed start may leave less room for error and make it more difficult to raise the millions of dollars needed to mount a national campaign. But it has given Democrats more time to hone their messages.
In an important departure from the past, in which the Democratic candidates were seen as overly concerned with funneling taxpayer dollars to the poor and minorities, this year's candidates are striking themes of economic populism and economic growth. For example, as they approach the starting line, Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton are promoting tax breaks for middle-class families with children, while Mr. Rockefeller is stressing the need for affordable health care. Last week, Mr. Cuomo outlined his own package of economic growth incentives.
"Democrats have yet to run a presidential campaign on economics," said James Carville, a Democratic political consultant. "If somebody breaks out of that mode and comes up with a hard, tough agenda, I think they can make a difference."
If he's right, 1992 could open a new phase in American politics. If not, and Democrats lose again next year, analysts may look back this fall in a different light -- as the start of a five-year campaign for the 1996 election.
1992: the presidential hopefuls
T H E R E P U B L I C A N
* George Bush
The newest Washington parlor game involves speculating about President Bush's health and whether he plans to seek re-election next year. Despite his thyroid condition, the answer is a resounding yes. He'll begin organizing this fall and declare formally early next year. Dump Quayle talk is cooling, and the VP's spot on the '92 ticket looks solid right now.
T H E D E M O C R A T S
* Lloyd M. Bentsen
His much-praised performance as the 1988 vice-presidential nominee erased memories of an abortive 1976 presidential run, and he admits he'd still love to be president. But the 70-year-old Texas senator doesn't really want to put himself through another grueling national campaign, and the chances that he'll become a candidate are remote.
* Bill Clinton
At 44, the six-term Arkansas governor is still a young, rising Democratic star. His centrist message of middle-class tax relief and a stout national defense is getting applause, but his prospective candidacy drew hoots from the home-state press recently when he said he wouldn't answer any questions about possible extramarital affairs or illegal drug use.
* Mario M. Cuomo
New York's governor, 59, has been elevating his profile in recent weeks. He plans to travel abroad this fall and deliver speeches around this country attacking Bush administration policies. Though he continues to insist he has no plans to become a candidate, his ability to raise big money fast means he could get in late and still be the man to beat.
* Al Gore
His Senate vote authorizing the use of military force against Iraq and the experience he gained running for president four years ago are valuable political assets. The 43-year-old Tennessean is pushing a tax cut plan for families with children, and he's just finished a book on the global environment. He looks like he's running, but some advisers still predict he won't.
* Tom Harkin
The self-styled prairie populist is the early surprise of the contest. He is dishing out old-fashioned liberalism on the stump, and rank-and-file Democrats are lapping it up. With the 52-year-old Iowa senator in the race, rival Democrats have an excuse to devote less time to Iowa's caucuses in February, and most probably will do just that.
* Jesse L. Jackson
After failing to get the nomination in 1984 and 1988, the civil rights leader has a tough decision. He might well be the early leader if he enters, but the odds are still heavily stacked against his winning the race. He is currently negotiating a possible cable TV talk show deal, which would prevent him from running. Stay tuned for a decision this fall.
* John D. Rockefeller IV
The West Virginia senator hopes his work on family issues and health care reform will propel him all the way to the White House. The 54-year-old scion of one of America's wealthiest families will add a spice of celebrity to the field of candidates, but some Democrats wonder if he's seasoned enough to prevail in the national arena in '92.
* Paul Tsongas
The Democrats' only declared candidate has made little measurable headway, despite three straight months of campaigning. Fund-raising is slow, press interest is fading, and there's no evidence he'll catch fire later on. But the former Massachusetts senator insists the problem is a lack of competition and sees his prospects rising once others get in.
* L. Douglas Wilder
Last spring, he formed an exploratory committee and looked like a certain presidential candidate. A fiscal conservative and the rTC nation's first elected black governor, he seemed poised to nudge Jesse Jackson into the wings. But after a series of gaffes, the Virginian has delayed his decision until summer's end.
When they announced . . .
. . . in the 1984 race
Alan Cranston (D) .. .. Feb. 2, 1983
Gary Hart (D) .. .. .. .. .. Feb. 17
Walter F. Mondale (D) .. .. .Feb. 21
Reubin Askew (D) .. .. .. .. Feb. 23
Ernest F. Hollings (D) .. ..April 18
John Glenn (D) .. .. .. .. .April 21
George S. McGovern (D) .. ..Sept. 13
Jesse L. Jackson (D) .. .. .. Nov. 3
Ronald Reagan (R) .. ..Jan. 29, 1984
. . . in the 1988 race
Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont IV (R)
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Sept. 16, 1986
Richard A. Gephardt (D)
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Feb. 23, 1987
Bruce E. Babbitt (D) .. .. .March 10
Alexander M. Haig (R) .. .. March 24
Jack F. Kemp (R) .. .. .. .. April 6
Gary Hart (D) .. .. .. .. ..April 13
Michael S. Dukakis (D) .. ..April 29
Paul Simon (D) .. .. .. .. .. May 18
Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) .. .. June 9
Al Gore (D) .. .. .. .. .. ..June 29
Jesse L. Jackson (D) .. .. ..Sept. 7
Pat Robertson (R) .. .. .. .. Oct. 1
George Bush (R) .. .. .. .. .Oct. 12
Bob Dole (R) .. .. .. .. .. ..Nov. 9
. . . in the 1992 race
Paul Tsongas (D) .. ..April 30, 1991