WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The biggest news in the Republican presidential contest this week may have been made by a Democrat.
Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, often described as President Clinton's closest friend in Congress, confirmed yesterday that he will not seek re-election next year.
His decision was interpreted by some as a vote of no-confidence in Mr. Clinton's re-election chances -- and the latest sign that the Republican presidential nomination could be valuable, indeed, in "It shows that senior Democrats are bailing out on Bill Clinton. They recognize that he may be the weakest incumbent that the Democrats have put forward in decades," says Roger Stone, Republican Arlen Specter's campaign manager.
Presidential campaigns have their unique rhythms and seasons. And while most Americans haven't tuned in yet, the opening phase of the GOP race is already history.
The nine GOP presidential contenders have raised more than $20 million in contributions, and all of them, except one, have staged formal announcement ceremonies. Organizing is well under way around the country, and the candidates themselves are on the road raising money and wooing supporters.
For those who might be interested in the status of the campaign, here's a brief summary on the progress of each candidate, based on interviews with campaign officials and other politicians.
* Bob Dole: The Senate majority leader has been the biggest winner to date. Most Republicans believe the nomination is his to lose, and he is off to a good start in his attempt to secure it.
Mr. Dole has done a solid job of early campaign organizing and gained the support of some key Republican officials around the country, including Govs. George Pataki of New York and George Voinovich of Ohio.
He has also made a surprisingly strong shift to the right, in an effort to reach out to his party's conservative wing. He has made speeches attacking Hollywood's cultural values, proposed repealing the ban on assault weapons and has taken a pledge -- which he refused to sign in his losing 1988 presidential campaign -- never to raise taxes as president.
These moves have led critics to accuse Mr. Dole of pandering to conservatives, the same charge laid at George Bush's feet when he made a similar move during his successful '88 campaign for the nomination and the presidency.
* Phil Gramm: The senator from Texas has raised more money than any other candidate ($8.7 million), but he may have been the biggest loser, too.
Still regarded as the main challenger to Mr. Dole, he enjoys what appears to be a fairly solid base in the South, where many of the early primaries take place. But he has failed to demonstrate the sort of progress many expected.
Mr. Gramm is attempting to sell himself as the true conservative in the race, but he has not moved far enough to the right to satisfy the more conservative elements in the party, especially on social issues. He has been criticized by anti-abortion forces for saying that there isn't enough popular support for an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution and that he won't make it a priority if he is elected.
Some Republicans that think Mr. Gramm has been too cautious in courting conservatives, apparently out of fear of being portrayed as an extremist in the general election. Others suggest that there may simply be a chemistry problem between Mr. Gramm and the voters, a lack of personal warmth that makes it hard for him to connect with many Republicans, especially outside the South.
"As they say in the advertising business, Phil Gramm may be the dog food that the dogs won't eat," says David Keene, a Dole adviser and head of the American Conservative Union.
* Pete Wilson: The only unannounced candidate in the field -- he plans to wait until fall to formally declare -- the California governor was another loser in the early phase of the race. He was unimpressive in his first campaign visit to the East Coast and has yet to demonstrate that he's prepared to compete against a seasoned rival like Mr. Dole.
However, few Republicans are willing to write off a man from the most populous state in the country who has always done whatever it takes to win. His aides claim he got more than $8 million in pledges during a brief telephone canvass, and Mr. Wilson recently added some experienced campaign advisers to his circle of California political strategists.
* Lamar Alexander: The former Tennessee governor raised an impressive $5.2 million and will have more than enough money for the early stages of the primary campaign.
Still, Mr. Alexander is struggling to remain part of the first tier of candidates. In a sign of just how little it takes to spoil a carefully planned campaign launch, he was widely criticized for wearing a red plaid shirt at his announcement ceremony, which some saw as a mere gimmick.
With more time on his hands than the leading contenders, he is in a position to do well in the Iowa caucuses, the first real test of the '96 race, where face-to-face campaigning really counts. A potentially serious problem, should his candidacy take off, is the series of controversial investments that have made him a wealthy man.
* Patrick J. Buchanan: The TV commentator who gave Mr. Bush a scare in 1988 isn't regarded as a serious threat this time. But he has been the beneficiary of the conservative movement's disillusionment with Mr. Gramm.
* Arlen Specter: The senator from Pennsylvania is trying to carve out a niche as the most liberal (relatively speaking) candidate in the Republican race. Given the party's conservative tilt, he has virtually no chance to win the nomination but he could be a factor in Iowa, where there are a number of moderate Republicans.
He was an unlikely political beneficiary of this week's bombing in Oklahoma City, which has focused attention on terrorism in America as never before. Mr. Specter, who chairs the Senate's anti-terrorism subcommittee, responded by quickly scheduling a hearing next week on anti-terrorism legislation.
* Richard J. Lugar: The senator from Indiana formally entered the race this week on the morning of the Oklahoma bombing, thus insuring that virtually no one paid any attention to his announcement. Some Republicans called the unfortunate timing a metaphor for the Lugar campaign, which seems to be having difficulty getting off the ground.
* Alan Keyes: The Baltimore-based radio talk show host has been the surprise of the early campaign. His talent as a fire-and-brimstone speaker has enchanted conservative Republican audiences and won him more positive attention than he ever got in two losing campaigns in Maryland.
He's apparently earned a spot in the early campaign debates, to the delight of true-believing conservatives and, especially, anti-abortion activists, whose cause he champions.
* Robert K. Dornan: In the same week that the representative from California announced his candidacy, his campaign manager quit. Mr. Dornan is never at a loss for words but has yet to attract either money or serious support for his long-shot campaign.
He insists he'll wind up with more delegates than either Mr. Lugar or Mr. Specter, and at this early stage of the GOP race, anything is possible.