Chicago DEMOCRATIC leaders who gathered here over the weekend were reveling in the daily evidence of disarray in the White House. For the moment, at least, the bumbling of President Bush has given them more reason for genuine optimism than at any time since the 1988 election.
As Jack Otero a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee put it " It couldn't be better for us ." Bob Slagle the state party chairman in Texas, said: "There's something new every day."
But among the most astute Democrats the optimism is being tempered by several political realities.
First, they recognize that any president -- even one who has been as politically inept as Bush in the last few weeks -- has the ability tocontrol the national agenda. Democrats are kidding on the square when they speculate about which foreign military adventure Bush will undertake next summer.
Second, the Democrats recognize they do not yet have a coherent message to send the electorate in 1992. The obviously overriding issue now is the economy. If there isn't a clear recovery under way within three or four months, it is an issue that will blot out all others. Democrats also have been encouraged by the evidence from the Pennsylvania Senate campaign that the health care issue has sting.
But at this stage, there is nothing approaching a clear party line on either the economy or health care. The congressional leadership is viewed as hesitant and uncertain. And the candidates for the presidential nomination are still trying out their themes for audiences of activists such as the Association of State Democratic Chairs that met here this weekend.
Democrats are also being reminded by the Bob Kerrey lesbian joke episode that they have a difficult coalition to mold -- and the great danger of appearing to be appeasing groups the Republicans so successfully characterize as "special interests." Although Kerrey apologized for telling the joke privately to Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Nebraska Democrat is being routinely picketed by lesbian and gay groups which refuse to be placated.
The ridiculous extremes of the incident were no better demonstrated than in the way Clinton's managers piously told reporters their candidate "didn't laugh" when Kerrey told the joke in New Hampshire the other night. It would not be surprising if voters didn't wonder if the Democrats should be taken seriously as potential custodians of the national direction.
Finally, the Democrats' optimism is being tempered by the reservations about their potential candidates, including the one who would be rated as the strong favorite for the nomination if he ran -- Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.
The two apparently being taken most seriously by state party leaders are Kerrey and Clinton, in large measure because they are persuaded these are the two who could give them a realistic chance in at least parts of the South, which they doubt Cuomo could do. Clinton is seen as marketable because he is Southern and because his message, the most finely honed of those of any of the leading Democrats, has an appeal to middle-class whites who have been deserting the party in droves.
Kerrey is still a mystery candidate. Democrats know he is supposed to have great personal charisma, but many of them have not seen it yet. What they do know, however, is that his history as a Medal of Honor winner who lost a leg in Vietnam gives him credentials highly prized everywhere in the country.
ZTC The third candidate in the first tier, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, is enormously appealing to old-line Democrats with his message that liberals have nothing for which they should apologize. But as one prominent party leader said privately, "Tom sounds good the first time you hear him, but then you start to think there's not so much there."
None of the others actively in the field -- former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California -- is considered a serious player. The conventional wisdom holds that Tsongas may have the single-best message of any of the Democrats but is the wrong man to deliver it. Both Wilder and Brown are dismissed as political loose cannons.
The bottom line is that the Democrats are enjoying the spectacle of George Bush playing politics wearing cement mittens. But they have worries of their own.