In the 192 hours between the beginning of Iowa's caucuses and the close of New Hampshire's polls, fewer than 500,000 voters decisively shaped the nation's choice. On balance, the Democratic Party benefited.
In presidential politics, as in horse racing, the rule is ''horses for courses.'' The Republican course will be long, suited not to a dashing dark horse but to an indefatigable dray horse, Bush or Dole. Because their policy differences are less marked than their different character traits, the race is inescapably personal, therefore bitter. The country may take the loser's opinion of the winner.
Dole goes South as Stonewall Jackson, waging a mobile war of selective engagement against Bush, who goes as Ulysses S. Grant. Bush has material advantages (money, organization) that will enable him to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer. Dole beat Bush two-to-one in Iowa and cut Bush's New Hampshire lead in half in eight days. But Bush, listed as terminal, has become Lazarus. Obviously the race is volatile.
Three tone-setting contests -- South Dakota, Minnesota, South Carolina -- come before Super Tuesday. Robertson, like Babe Ruth pointing to Wrigley Field's center field in his ''called shot,'' says he will win South Carolina on the Saturday before the big Tuesday. If he does, Dole will benefit, but the GOP will acquire the contagion of strangeness.
In the 1980 and 1984 elections the Republican coalition contained millions of people, many of them young, who were conservative on the core questions of governance -- taxing and spending -- but liberal on such social issues as abortion, censorship and prayer in public schools. Robertson radiates the itch to spruce up the morals of Americans.
So the Republican race is increasingly fueled by personal animosity and religious frenzy. Democratic passions seem comparatively contrived.
When the nation is at peace and the economy is performing adequately and there is no polarizing issue like civil rights, political stridency is inversely proportional to sincerity. Thus Dick Gephardt says American workers are being ''crushed'' as the middle class ''shrinks.''
Gephardt no doubt partakes of the general Democratic view that Ronald Reagan cannot distinguish between movies and reality, but Gephardt says of the movie ''Wall Street'': ''It really does ring true.'' The movie is a political soap opera of Beverly Hills leftism, nutty about the economy and wrong about the law.
''What this election is all about,'' says Gephardt, ''is fundamental change.'' Actually, no. If you stretch nearly to the snapping point the notion of ''fundamental'' change, you can say such change was at issue in the 1896, 1964 and 1972 elections. The candidates seen as advocating such change -- Bryan, Goldwater and McGovern, respectively -- were repudiated.
Like Gephardt, Dukakis has not yet shifted rhetorical gears, from the rhetoric needed to distinguish himself from the pack to that required to seem presidential.
Dukakis is as adept as the next fellow at picking fights with the Abominable Straw Man, as when he says Republicans believe ''the job of government is to dismantle itself.'' Surely he cannot stir fear and trembling saying stuff like that, not after a Republican administration that, arriving in Washington promising to dismantle the education and energy departments, now advocates creation of a Cabinet-level veterans' department.
It was under Reagan's ''dismantling'' that federal spending as a percentage of GNP reached a peacetime record high. Dukakis cannot blame that on defense spending, which in the new budget will decline, in real terms, for the fourth consecutive year.
Dukakis says, ''I will not accept an America where some people do well, while others are left behind.'' Oh, yes you will, unless you are promising what has never been -- egalitarian and cost-free growth.
Today Americans live in a centrifugal epoch in which economic and social energies pull apart economic and social units and dissolve the mores and manners that are social cement. But when have Americans not lived in such an epoch?
The sense of social acceleration is disconcerting. It accounts for such different expressions of anxiety as the Gephardt and Robertson evocations of resentments. Gephardt directs resentments toward foreigners, such as Koreans. Robertson locates the enemy within. Both of them, and Dukakis, are preaching sentimental conservatism.
Conservatism has been called spiritual arithmetic that calculates the cost of change. What the country needs, at long last, is an unsentimental conservatism that summons the nation to maturity, to an honest reckoning of the price of its appetites.