GUESS WHAT? It's only 36 months until the Iowa caucus, 37 until New Hampshire. Not a minute too soon, the Democrats are girding themselves for a contest over the national chairmanship of their party, a contest some of their adversaries hope will become, de facto, the first Democratic presidential primary of 1984. So far, President Carter, Vice President Mondale, Sen. Kennedy and other potential national candidates have resisted any temptation to allow the party election to become that.

In spite of the party's reduced fortunes, the Democrats are not short of candidates for the party job. This is at lease in part due to the fact that the only time it is truly entertaining and exciting to be a national chairman is when your party is out of the White House. For confirmation of that statement, you can call either former GOP chairman Sen. Robert Dole (who was sacked after President Nixon's 1972 victory) or the incumbent Democratic chief, John C. White of Texas. The truth is that the political people in every White House (and every White House does have political people) run the national party headquarters and apparatus.

Already there are three active Democratic candidates for the top party job: the front-runner, Charles T. Manatt of California, former state chairman and an active fund-raiser for a number of Democratic candidates for federal office; Patrick J. Cunningham of New York, who was Bronx chairman for nine years and state chairman for three; and Charles C. Curry of Missouri, a national committee member, who for eight years was the elected chief executive of Jackson County, the greater Kansas City area. Thus far, none of the three candidates -- or outgoing Arkansas Gov. William Clinton, who had been an on-again/mostly off-again candidate -- has attempted to tie his candidacy to any prospective presidential star, and, mercifully for the Democrats, none of the major presidential possibilities for 1984 has determined to make the election of a chairman by the 363-member national committee a matter of pride or political power. But does anyone want to wager anything that such discretion and maturity will prevail through Feb. 27 when the election is held -- or will the first primary of 1984 be held in 1981 after all?