Whatever happened to the grand idea that running for president is something special?

That by the time you try out for the Oval Office you ought to have something to say that a whole bunch of people want to hear?

That running for president takes courage and audacity and perseverance?

That you'd better be prepared to overcome poor fund-raising months, bad press and near-death experiences (draft-dodging allegations, Gennifer Flowers, "I didn't inhale")?

That running for president does not mean announcing your intentions, quitting before a single vote has been counted and then complaining about the process?

That's called whining.

Which brings us to this year's class of campaign dropouts. Last week, Elizabeth Dole became the latest Republican to depart with a squawk. The money, the money, the money. George W. Bush has too much of it, and she didn't have enough.

Not every dropout has grumbled with equal fervor, but they all abandoned their White House dreams with a sad song about Bush Hegemony. Which is probably why Bush sees no need to share the debating stage with his rivals in New Hampshire tonight. Never mind the official explanation: His wife is receiving an award from her alma mater. If he just waits long enough, will there be anyone left to debate but his own shadow?

"I find it hard to have any sympathy for these candidates who drop in and out of the race," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "What are they whining about? It may speak volumes about their lack of judgment and good sense about what was possible in the first place. . . . People who run for president should understand it is no small undertaking. It is a vastly difficult road, a mountain to climb."

In order, the failed mountain climbers:

* House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) fled first, abandoning his bid in July after just five months on the trail. He promptly endorsed the Texas governor, saying they were philosophically compatible. Which raises the question of why he bothered entering the race in the first place. Isn't this the same John Kasich who said his campaign was about a "larger movement," that he was running for "everyday Americans," people like his late father, the mailman?

"We weren't gaining any traction financially or politically," says former campaign manager Karen Johnson. "And when the people tell you, 'We like you but it's not your time,' you've got to listen to them."

* Next to bolt was former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who hadn't held a full-time job since 1993. He started his 2000 campaign almost as soon as his failed '96 campaign was over. He assembled an impressive organization in Iowa. It earned him sixth place in a summer straw poll there. Still, when he called it quits this time, he groused that he never had an opportunity to make his case, that a rush to judgment for Bush prevented a "real contest" for the nomination, that the $1,000 limit on individual contributions hindered his ability to compete with the front-runner. He didn't dwell on the effectiveness of his own message.

* Dan Quayle's exit followed. Though subdued in his farewell, he also cited Bush's fund-raising prowess and the compressed political calendar--18 primaries and caucuses in 29 days beginning in late January--as reasons for his withdrawal. This is the same Dan Quayle who, after finishing a dismal eighth in the Iowa straw poll, insisted he would soldier on until voters had a chance to make a choice in a real election. What happened?

* And most recently there was Elizabeth Dole, often described as the first serious female contender for a major party's presidential nomination. She consistently scored second to Bush in national polls. In recent weeks, she also had protested suggestions that her demise was imminent. What happened?

"The bottom line remains money," she said when she announced her departure. "In fact, it's kind of a Catch-22. Inadequate funding limits the number of staff at headquarters and in key states. It restricts your ability to communicate with voters. It places a ceiling on travel and travel staff. Over time, it becomes nearly impossible to sustain an effective campaign."

As her former communications man, Ari Fleischer, put it: "One man's whine is another woman's reality."

And here's another reality: Bush's advantages were no secret to anyone who jumped into the fray. He started with his father's Rolodex and the early backing of fellow governors. He also had the ghosts of the last two presidential elections on his side. His haunted party desperately wants to pick a winner this time and avoid a field of bloody bodies in the process.

"These are not surprising facts, nor should they have been for any of those candidates who have dropped out," says John Weaver, political director for John McCain's still-alive campaign.

"We haven't thought much about George Bush's money or Steve Forbes's money," Weaver says of the Arizona senator's effort. "If money were the deciding factor, we'd have President Perot, President Connally, President Gramm."

He's referring to three well-heeled presidential aspirants from the past, all of them Texans: billionaire Ross Perot, former governor John Connally and Sen. Phil Gramm. All spent lots of money, didn't make it.

"We're going to stay in the race until John's the nominee or until enough primaries have spoken," Weaver says. "Money can't buy you love."

Love is what Jesse Jackson had on his side--a loyal following among black voters and others in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that kept him in the race until a nominee was selected in 1984 and '88.

"There are two kinds of candidates out there," says Fleischer. There's "one kind of candidate who can live off the land. They're ideological." Fleischer includes Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Pat Robertson and Jerry Brown in that category. "The other type of candidate is the more establishment type of candidate. They need the trappings of a full-blown candidacy to make their bid." In this category, he includes Quayle, Alexander and Dole.

"Elizabeth Dole needs a full policy staff, traveling aides, a campaign mode around her," Fleischer says. "It's a different style. She could not live off the land."

Maybe those who couldn't live off the land didn't do enough to distinguish themselves. Didn't show enough passion. Didn't take enough risks. Didn't have enough things they believed in. Couldn't communicate the things they believed in well enough.

But blame the system?

"I think it's a convenient excuse for them bowing out," says Bill Connelly, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. "It isn't that the system is unfair. I think that money is following the support, not vice versa.

"Take someone like Dan Quayle," he adds. "He is yesterday's man. He has been judged fairly and found wanting. He had as clean a shot at the kind of establishment Republican support as George Bush had. Lamar Alexander also was kind of yesterday's man. He had four years. With the Iowa straw poll, he invested so much of his time and lost ground. He had his shot."

In fairness, so-called "niche candidates" such as Alan Keyes, Bauer and Buchanan are judged by a different standard, Connelly says, because no one expects them to win. Keyes and Bauer are trying to be the consciences of their party on cultural and moral issues. Buchanan is a rabble-rousing right-wing populist who has run twice for the Republican nomination and now has turned in his GOP membership to take a stab at representing the Reform Party. He enjoys being onstage. And unlike Sen. Robert Smith, who aborted his GOP campaign in July, declared himself an independent and has not been heard from since, Buchanan knows how to attract attention.

"They typically have a message they want to get across," Connelly says of the niche candidates. "The improbable character of their candidacies is what keeps them in the race."

When Dole departed, she bellyached about her burden. She raised $4.8 million over the last nine months compared with $57 million for Bush. Meanwhile, her other moneyed competitor, Steve Forbes, didn't trouble himself with financial worries. When he ran in 1996, he spent $37 million of his own money. He can stay in play as long as he wants.

"I've attended over 70 fund-raising events across America," Dole said. "My schedule through early December would have taken me to a total of 108 fund-raising events across America. Even then, these rivals would enjoy a 75- or 80-to-1 cash advantage. Perhaps I could handle 2-to-1 or even 10-to-1, but not 80-to-1."

Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col is sympathetic--to a point. "It's onerous," he says. "You have to be able to field and maintain organizations in eight to 10 states to be viable, and more to actually be able to win." In states such as New York, considerable time and money must be expended just to get on the ballot. Travel schedules are more intense this time around because so many states have moved up their primaries in an effort to influence the nominating process.

Still, he adds, the candidates who have dropped out are not political novices. "Some of them have had over 20 years in this process," he says. "Some of them thought they had better fund-raising networks than they had."

Of Dole, Dal Col says: "She had a unique niche, and I was surprised she wasn't able to capitalize on it earlier."

So now we have four Republicans who have ended their presidential campaigns and two others who are pursuing their long-shot ambitions under other labels. George W. Bush, it could be argued, has scared them all off. And not a single vote in an actual election has been counted.

This is not the lesson we teach our kids. When they come up against a bigger, stronger, more athletic opponent, we don't tell them: Let's go home, our team has no chance to win. No, we emphasize their strengths, tell them to play hard, not to quit, that overcoming adversity builds character.

Shouldn't running for president be a test? Of will? Of endurance? Of resolve?

"I don't think anyone could have anticipated how difficult it was going to be," laments Karen Johnson, the former Kasich campaign manager. "The reality of running against Bush didn't hit folks until they actually tried to do it."

CAPTION: Elizabeth Dole is the latest Republican presidential candidate to depart with a squawk.