Do you remember the last time the party out of power nominated a major state governor with no Washington record to run against a two-term vice president with undisputed foreign policy experience? That was when Republicans backing Vice President George Bush scoffed that then-Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Mike Dukakis went for his foreign policy briefings to the International House of Pancakes.

But now when the over-the-horizon front-running governor of the out party calls Greeks "Grecians," Kosovars "Kosovians" and, at a Richmond event, confuses Slovakia and Slovenia, these same Republicans -- and Democrats too -- are struck mute.

This is 1999, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush appears to have grown up under a lucky lone star. Take the Los Angeles Times story that during the height of the Vietnam War, George W. Bush, 21, about to graduate from Yale and lose his student draft deferment, was admitted into the Texas Air National Guard. According to the Times, "Doors were opened and good fortune flowed to him at opportune times" when there was a waiting list nationally of 100,000 for admission to the guard.

Only a few years ago, such a story would have become material for a Jay Leno monologue. But after Bill Clinton's 1992 war story about nearly joining the University of Arkansas ROTC band and forgetting that, yes, he had actually received a draft notice, few Democrats are willing to accuse Bush of evading military service.

Then there is the money story. The 1999 Bush campaign has smashed all fund-raising records. The backbone of the Bush money effort has been the "Pioneers," a campaign group of 200 high-powered individuals, each of whom has pledged to collect a minimum of $100,000 in contributions. The Bush campaign has refused to reveal the names of these high rollers. But after the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, which inhaled funds on both sides of the International Dateline -- some of it even in dollars -- is the Bush campaign funding virtually invulnerable to Democratic criticism?

With all this good news, Bush couldn't be faulted for taking a moment to sniff the yellow roses. He has the backing but not the baggage of the Republican Congress. His fellow GOP governors, in addition to their public endorsements, are busy shaking local money trees for him. Some established polls give him a 50 percent lead over his nearest Republican challenger.

Serious Republicans and more than a few serious Democrats think the GOP contest is all but over. That could mean a year and a convention nearly free of the quadrennial GOP bickering and bloodletting over hot-button issues between competing camps.

That is obviously the good news. But there is a genuine political downside for the lionized overdog. A presidential campaign is a strike for power. That campaign always shapes and often determines the administration that follows it. A campaign and a candidate untested in combat and unbloodied by defeat never really know their weaknesses. Ronald Reagan's upset loss in Iowa in 1980, George Bush's defeat there in 1988 and Bill Clinton's 1992 setback in New Hampshire made each man a better presidential candidate and probably a better president.

The nominee who prevails after a long season of tough primaries has been tested. He has been forced to learn lessons about the country, its people and himself and about those he has recruited. With a contested victory and the presidential nomination comes a validation from the citizens.

The Democratic contest between two heavyweight contenders, Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, will be serious and could be thoughtful. The eventual winner will be recognized for having vanquished a formidable adversary. The Democratic nominee in the fall of 2000 will be battle-tested. The Republican may not. As such a prohibitive favorite, Bush and his campaign will be the target of bootlickers, apple polishers and fawning sycophants. The campaign staff, unenergized by primary combat, may spend hours scheming for a White House parking space or a West Wing prize.

A cakewalk to a coronation for the Republican front-runner would be harmful to his chances in the fall. A competitive, robust, rugged conflict for the nomination would better serve the eventual chances of the party nominee, better serve his party and, more important, better serve the country.