WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, Republicans with dreams of the White House have begun trouping into New Hampshire to get a running start on the 1996 presidential campaign.
Not to worry. If recent history is any guide, this early testing of the water means little or nothing about how that contest for the Republican nomination or the campaign for the presidency will turn out.
The latest Republican visitors to the splendors of New Hampshire in autumn have been Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who stopped in two weeks ago, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, who attended a party dinner in Manchester over the weekend. The others who have managed to find some reason to visit New Hampshire include Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who spent a full week there this summer, and former Cabinet members Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Lamar Alexander and Lynn Martin.
At the most rudimentary level, these visits have some value for the potential candidates. They have a chance to meet the activists whom they may want to recruit for their local committees two years from now. They can learn something about the pecking order among Republicans within the state. Most importantly, they can send a signal nationally as well as in New Hampshire that they are seriously interested.
But the days when success in the New Hampshire primary rested on how many hands a candidate could shake have long since passed. Although the primary is still the first in the nation, it is no longer immune to outside influences as it was, for example, when George McGovern built a grass-roots organization there in 1971.
The most important factor these days, although New Hampshire boosters hate to admit it, is the likelihood that Iowa once again will hold its precinct caucuses a week before the primary. The results in Iowa don't dictate the outcome in New Hampshire, but it has become clear that candidates who bomb out in Iowa cannot resurrect their candidacies in the primary.
The critical difference these days is the influence of television and national opinion polls. To win in New Hampshire a candidate must be seen as a credible challenger for the nomination after the votes have been counted in Iowa. And that means being treated as a serious player by the networks and, as a result, by the rest of the news media.
There was, of course, an exception in 1992 when Paul Tsongas won in the Democratic primary. But the Iowa caucuses were not competitive last year because of the presence of an Iowan, Sen. Tom Harkin, in the field. And Tsongas succeeded largely because the real front-runner at the time, Bill Clinton, was carrying the baggage of controversy over Gennifer Flowers and his history of draft-evasion.
Television also has become important in New Hampshire in a different sense. As the electorate has grown, so has the reliance by the candidates on TV commercials beamed from Boston since they were first used in 1980. Although the myth of personal campaigning persists, the fact is that most primary voters in both parties form their views on the basis of television, both news reports and advertising.
But the Republicans looking ahead to 1996 cannot be expected to be guided by logic or history. What they understand is that the one sure way to establish themselves as part of the equation is to visit New Hampshire. As Carroll Campbell put it the other day, "I'm not here for the scenery and I'm not on vacation."
In this cycle, this early rush is being stimulated by some special factors. One is simply the fact that the Republicans are facing a truly open situation and perhaps the prospect of generational change for the first time since Ronald Reagan came along -- and won the New Hampshire primary -- in 1980.
A second is the example set by candidate Bill Clinton last year. If a governor of Arkansas can become president, the private thinking goes, anyone can.
So the woods are full of Republicans in New Hampshire these days. But nobody has to take it too seriously.
Heaven knows, the Republicans there don't. It's all part of a quadrennial ritual dance, no more or no less.