As Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas comes cautiously to the end of his personal marathon of testing the political waters, those he has consulted have been persuaded that he will plunge into the pool of Democrats seeking the 1984 presidential nomination.
"Right now, I'd be surprised if he didn't run," says Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.), who has strongly urged his home-state colleague to make the race.
"One by one, the questions have been resolved into a 'yes,' " said Diane Kincaid Blair, a University of Arkansas political science professor who is a confidante of Bumpers, as is her husband, state Democratic national commiteeman Jim Blair. "Now I'd say there's a very strong likelihood that Dale will run."
Leading advisers to those already running are equally persuaded.
"I think Bumpers is going to run," said James Johnson, chief campaign strategist for former vice president Walter F. Mondale, the current front-runner. "I don't know anyone in any of the camps who thinks he won't."
But Democratic politicians and some of the home-state faithful are puzzled by Bumpers' circumspection. He has the 1984 record for presidential exploratory deliberation.
Even now, when asked, Bumpers plays the political Hamlet: he begins by saying he is not sure whether to be or not to be a candidate and finishes his soliloquy sounding like one.
"I'm not sure myself," he said in an interview last week. "I know I have to make some overt move soon . . . . But I have to talk to a few more people . . . who are going to get involved in a campaign, including fund-raisers."
He said he needed to be sure of enough money for a presidential campaign, then added that he thought there would be.
"There isn't anyone in the race that can see now the kind of money that will be necessary in their campaign," Bumpers said. "Anybody who says he has to see $10 million first can't see it. I promise you, even Fritz Mondale can't see it today. The Catch 22 is that you can't raise the money until you move, and you can't move until you raise the money."
Frances Lear, a widely known liberal California Democratic activist and wife of the television producer, Norman Lear, is eager to help Bumpers raise money in the fertile political fields of southern California.
"I'm encouraging him to run," she said. "There's a great deal of money in southern California . . . . I'd go anywhere for Dale Bumpers."
Bumpers is also moving with the presidential herd. Encouraged by his oratorical success at the roundup of candidates at the California state convention in January, he has scheduled himself into all the upcoming candidate cattle shows.
He has consulted with his friend, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who withdrew from the 1984 race, and has conferred frequently with Kennedy's administrative aide, Lawrence Horowitz, about strategies of a presidential campaign.
Noting that Kennedy has talked with just about every Democratic candidate, Horowitz added that he himself talks almost daily with Jim Johnson, Mondale's adviser.
Bumpers has also consulted with former Iowa senators Harold Hughes and John C. Culver, whose state is the site of the first presidential delegate selection caucus. Political sources said Hughes, who retains especially high popularity in his state, is interested in helping Bumpers.
Bumpers has also talked with David Doak, who managed the successful gubernatorial campaigns of Charles S. Robb in Virginia and Mark White in Texas. Doak has turned down presidential campaign job invitations from Mondale and Sen. John Glenn (Ohio) and is known to be interested in working for either Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.) or Bumpers.
A possible and crucial negative for Bumpers might be strained relations with organized labor. The AFL-CIO hopes to endorse a presidential candidate before the 1984 primaries and caucuses.
Bumpers conceded that top union officials, especially in the AFL-CIO, remain angry that he did not give them the deciding vote when their 1979 effort to end a filibuster on labor law reform fell one vote short. Indeed, the state AFL-CIO refused to endorse him for the Senate in 1980 because of that vote.
"That was a very unpopular bill in my state," Bumpers said. "People felt it was designed to keep industry from coming to the Sun Belt. And don't forget, it followed on the heels of the Panama Canal treaty for which Bumpers voted, incurring the wrath of many Arkansas voters . I really hope labor will take a much more general view of my voting record in the Senate. I think that's the only vote they had strong objection to.
"It's not a question of my trying to get their endorsement," he said. "I know I will not get it . . . . But I hope they would not endorse anyone."
At the AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla., last week, union leaders appeared to be basking in forgiveness.
"It's not our way to rule a guy out on the basis of one vote," said J.C. Turner, head of the International Union of Operating Engineers, speaking of Bumpers in terms far from enthusiastic but not vindictive.
Bumpers also knows he must answer to women for his vote against extending the deadline for state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
"One of the first bills I introduced when I was governor of Arkansas was the ERA," he explained. "But I'm a fairly strict constructionist as far as the Constitution is concerned."
A Bumpers candidacy could pose a problem to those who hope for a base of Sun Belt support--centrist Glenn and two southerners, former Florida governor Reubin Askew and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.).
Bumpers' candidacy as a progressive southerner could be a problem for those courting the party's progressive activists and who consider the field overcrowded already with Mondale, Hart and Sen. Alan Cranston (Calif.).
The questions that Diane Blair said Bumpers had resolved in favor of running are: how he would fare as a candidate compared with the others, how he would adapt to campaigning nationwide, whether enough experienced national political campaign staffers are available and whether money will be available.
Bumpers believes that he can raise $1 million in startup money in Arkansas, that the party is rich in political talent, that he can adapt to living on the campaign trail and that he compares well with the others.
But the most important question he must resolve is not about money, labor or the other mundane factors.
"I just have to be very comfortable about some of my beliefs about the country," he said. "I am trying to collect my thoughts about the presidency. Would a Bumpers presidency have the kind of meaning I feel it ought to have? And who do the American people think will best restore their confidence in the political process?
"I feel this country has lost its compass . . . it is suffering from skewed priorities.
". . . It seems to me if one wants the job too badly, it may sustain one in the campaign, but that does not assume that a successful presidency will follow. Because if you want it too badly, you are likely to compromise yourself."