WASHINGTON -- Like the Sherlock Holmes case with a dog that didn't bark, the biggest news in American politics this week was about a candidate who didn't run.
OK, it was a slow week. But when a leading Republican, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, passed up a good shot at a seat in the Senate, it offered clues to the sorry state of politics in this country and, maybe, to the outcome of next year's elections.
By any measure, these should be boom times for Republicans. The party out of power in the White House typically gains in congressional elections held halfway through the new president's term. The average pickup for the "out" party has been two Senate seats and 24 House seats since 1972.
On top of that, President Clinton isn't looking like Franklin D. Roosevelt reincarnated these days. Consumer confidence is below where it was when he got elected last fall. The combination of a politically weak president, deep pessimism about the economy and a large number of Democratic incumbents facing the voters in an age of anti-incumbent bias should be enough to have Republicans thinking that Washington will soon be theirs again.
It may yet be. A large crop of Republican candidates is emerging to challenge Democratic incumbents in the House of Representatives (all 435 seats are at stake next year). Republicans could well win enough Democratic seats to surpass the GOP's high-water mark of 192 seats during the Reagan years (well below the 218 needed for a majority, however).
But in the Senate, Republican leader Bob Dole's dream of regaining control and thus "cutting Clinton's term in half" still seems out of reach. Preliminary estimates -- and they are only guesses -- are that Republicans will be lucky to gain more than half the seven seats they need to take over the Senate. (Democrats currently hold a 56-44 advantage; 21 of the seats at risk next year are Democratic, 13 are Republican.)
A lack of good candidates is part of the GOP's problem. In Maryland, for example, a recent poll found Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes in surprisingly vulnerable shape as he begins pursuit of a fourth six-year term in 1994. Fewer than half of state voters surveyed wanted to re-elect him, according to the poll by Political/Media Research. Mr. Sarbanes also got relatively low marks for the way he is doing his job (64th in the 100-member Senate in job approval, according to P/MR).
However, the Republicans may have no one capable of unseating the lackluster incumbent. None of those tested against him, including Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore and Rep. Connie Morella of Montgomery County, got more than 33 percent in the poll.
Even more frustrating for Republican strategists are those states in which an attractive candidate has declined to run.
New Jersey's Democratic senator, millionaire liberal Frank R. Lautenberg, is regarded as one of the weakest incumbents up for re-election. As a challenger, Mr. Kean, a moderate Republican whose appeal to black voters helped make him the state's most popular governor in modern times, might have entered the campaign as the favorite. His decision to skip the race leaves the Republican nomination to a lesser-known hopeful, someone who will probably have a tougher time unseating the well-financed Democrat.
For governors and other successful statewide officials, moving up to the Senate used to be a well-traveled career path. No longer.
There's little mystery that someone like Tom Kean can resist the allure of a Senate seat. In announcing Tuesday that he wouldn't run, Mr. Kean expressed doubt about "whether the Senate is a place where you can get anything done." Gridlock in government and public cynicism toward Washington have made public service less attractive.
Of course, the scarcity of high quality, big-name challengers -- Republican or Democratic -- in next year's Senate races isn't necessarily a bad thing (unless you think experience counts in government, as it does in other fields). Nor is it fair to blame this year's crop of freshmen "outsiders" in Congress for failing to revolutionize Washington overnight. In time, perhaps, they will.
Don't hold your breath, though. The other eye-opening political news out this week was a study by the liberal lobby group Common Cause, which found that the 110 new members of the House have been quick to climb aboard the gravy train.
Special-interest political action committees gave almost half the dollars that the freshmen already have raised for re-election races next year. That's roughly double the amount of special-interest money that the freshmen received last year, when they were elected to clean up the mess in Washington.