FOR MOST PEOPLE this is the time for trying to figure out such questions as what is the Vernal Equinox, how to stay out of the clutches of the IRS and whether it's too late to fertilize the lawn.
For me, this is the season -- I operate on a quadrennial rather than an annual cycle -- for listening to laments that, oh my God, we're still almost two years away from it, but already the furshlugginer presidential election is underway. Give us a break, they plead. Come see us three weeks -- no, make that two weeks -- before election day.
What can I say?
I know as well as anyone that loosing the horde of political reporters -- a collection of the twisted, the moonstruck and the damned if ever there was one -- on innocent communities is occasion for decent citizens to check their wallets and lock up their daughters. My helpful suggestion that it's good to at least get all us misfits out of the poolhalls and engaged in some semblance of useful employment, falls on deaf ears.
Nor does it help to remind people of their political history. John Kennedy really began his run for the White House at the 1956 convention when he tried to get on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson. Teddy White's fascinating chronicle of Kennedy's long run to the presidency sparked the birth of the politics beat as it's known today.
Richard Nixon was campaigning hard for president when he appeared on behalf of all those Republican candidates in 1966. His operatives were working the potential delegates to a frazzle all through 1967. Ed Muskie and George McGovern were crisscrossing the country in 1971, one picking up the endorsements of governors and other party leaders, the other recruiting organizers and activists.
Jimmy Carter spent 1974 and 1975 on the road -- about 250 days in 1975 alone -- running for president.
This presidential election is rolling faster than in the past, however. Four of the six Democratic hopefuls -- Reubin Askew, Alan Cranston, Gary Hart and Fritz Mondale -- formally announced their candidacies in February and Fritz Hollings and John Glenn are following suit this month. At this point four years ago, only Phil Crane had announced. Bob Dole announced in May of 1979 and most of the rest followed in November or December. John Connally waited until January of 1980.
And the Republican National Committee has just wound up an unprecedented $1 million national television campaign on behalf of President Reagan, assuming that he's going to run for reelection.
Don't expect things to improve. The increasingly early starts in part are the cumulative effect of the Democratic party rules changes since 1972 which were aimed at, among other things, reducing the influence of big-money contributors in politics and shortening the campaign season.
What these reforms have done is help give rise to the political Law of Unintended Consequences. Contrary to their perpetrators' intent, they've helped make the campaign season longer and the campaigns increasingly expensive.
In an effort to shorten the pre-convention campaign, the national Democratic party has tried to establish a "window," a time frame for the primaries and caucuses in which the national convention delegates are chosen. The "window" for 1984 is March 13 to June 12 but there are exceptions for those traditional front- runners, Iowa and New Hampshire, to be two weeks and one week early, respectively.
Given the proliferation of primaries -- there were 16 when Kennedy ran in 1960, 31 for Democrats in 1980 -- the "window" looks more like a political "densepack."
Several states are in the process of, or are considering changing their primary or caucus dates, but it appears likely that more than half the committed delegates to the 1984 convention will have been chosen by the first Tuesday in April -- just three weeks after the beginning of the window. This and the enormous impact of winning a plurality in Iowa and New Hampshire, are the obvious advantages for an early start.
With the number of primaries crowding into the first month -- the prospect that there might be as many as 25 helped scare Dale Bumpers out of the race -- the need for an early start of campaigning and fund-raising is heightened. This forces the candidates to make serious and expensive efforts in more early primaries than before -- Cranston, for instance, is concentrating on such widely separated states as Alabama and Washington in addition to New Hampshire and Florida -- to show that they are truly national candidates. This also puts pressure on the candidates to get out early and raise more money.
To this end, the candidates need to make a good showing in the so-called "cattle shows" and straw polls of the Democratic candidates such as those in California, Georgia and Massachusetts. There will be more -- the Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and Maine parties are already talking of it and others can't be far behind -- and they may be more important this year than in the past.
"At the dinner in Atlanta, the people were listening more closely, more intently that I recall in the past," says Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "They hadn't decided and unlike the past they weren't there to demonstrate support for their candidate but to listen and make up their minds. They're taking their choice very seriously."
We can thank Ronald Reagan for this. Lewis argues that the intentness of Democratic activists is the result of the shock of the 1980 Republican victories and what they see Reaganomics doing to their constituents.
"In the past we hurt ourselves by wanting instant gratification, a candidate who could win rather than one who could govern," she says. "It's the difference between a singles bar and marriage. Now it's a battle between God and Satan."
For all this, the fact is that politics in a democracy is a never-ending, ongoing process. Running for president is an enormously difficult and time- consuming process in a country as huge and complex as the United States.
It is, as Sen. Howard Baker noted, a full-time occupation, more physically strenuous than actually being president. It is significant that since Franklin Roosevelt, the only president who was a full-time officeholder when he entered the White House, with the obvious exception of those who were vice president and succeeded to office, was John F. Kennedy.
Askew and Mondale, who are out of office and can campaign full time, will fully appreciate this a year from now. So, from a different perspective, will Senators Cranston, Glenn, Hart and Hollings.