WASHINGTON -- The press is facing a quadrennial dilemma -- how to decide who qualifies as a "serious" candidate for president.
The civics textbooks tell us anyone can run, but the reality is that there are always self-anointed candidates who have no realistic chance of being nominated. So the question is how much attention they should receive from newspapers and broadcasters who don't want to mislead their readers and viewers.
The classic example this year is Alan L. Keyes, whose political resume consists entirely of landslide defeats in two Senate campaigns in Maryland.
Nobody in the political community believes that Keyes is, or ever will be, a significant factor in the contest, but he was allowed to participate in a candidates debate in New Hampshire in January, and he did attract some news coverage when he announced his candidacy formally in California on Sunday.
There have been other self-propelled candidates in both parties. Businessman Ben Fernandez ran against Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980, for example. In the 1992 Democratic campaign, there was Larry Agran, whose only political credential was that he had once served as mayor of Irvine, Calif.
These candidates from left field and their partisans -- there are always a few -- argue that they are "entitled to be heard" in the press and by the voters. And in the cases of Keyes this year and Agran in 1992, their parties reinforced that view by allowing them to participate in party-sponsored debates.
But the notion that such candidates are "entitled" to anything is nonsense. What they do most often is get in the way of the real candidates during primary season debates.
Making a judgment about a Keyes or an Agran is simpler, however, than dealing with more marginal cases. That becomes clear when you look at the Republican field today.
At the moment, the "first tier" of candidates according to the press is made up of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Gov. Pete Wilson of California. Anyone can write a plausible script that ends with one of them becoming the nominee. The same may be true to a slightly lesser degree of two others active today -- former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.
All of these candidates have the kind of political history, identifiable constituencies and ability to raise money to be taken seriously. None has some conspicuous handicap that would rule him out for a place on a national ticket.
Specter and Dornan may argue that they are entitled to seriou attention simply by virtue of the offices they hold. And Buchanan can point to the fact that several million Americans voted for him in primaries and caucuses four years ago.
It is difficult if not impossible, nonetheless, to imagine a set of circumstances that would give any one of them the nomination. Justifiably or not, Specter will be seen as representing the liberal fringe of the Republican Party because of his support for abortion rights. Buchanan and Dornan speak for the conservative extreme.
The operative point is that this is not some judgment plucked out of the air by the press to justify spending less time and money on a Specter than on a Dole. It is a judgment that is pervasive in the political community and only reflected in the press. The difference, of course, is that Republican Party leaders cannot speak frankly about their own aspirants.
No one is going to say, for example, that the GOP is hardly likely at this stage of its evolution to choose a black like Keyes or a Jew like Specter. Everyone says it privately; no one publicly -- just as Democrats were unwilling to admit in 1984 and 1988 that Jesse Jackson was not going to be allowed on their ticket.
Those who see the press as arbitrarily infringing on the process may argue that Jimmy Carter had extremely thin credentials -- one term as governor of Georgia -- when he began running in January of 1975.
What may be forgotten is that Carter took months to force himself into the consciousness of the political community and, as a result, to be treated by the press as a "serious" candidate.
Someone may do the same this time. But Alan Keyes is not the Jimmy Carter of 1976. He is the Larry Agran of 1996.