The effort to find a new Democratic national chairman has become somewhat like a parlor game that could be called "a resume in search of a name."
Everyone in the Democratic Party seems to be playing it. So far it has produced a lot of brave talk about the future of the party, a new assertiveness on the part of Democratic governors and a political form of methadone maintenance for political junkies who are feeling withdrawal pains since the election ended.
Since the Reagan landslide buried Walter F. Mondale last month, Democrats around the country have seen the election of a successor to Chairman Charles T. Manatt as the first symbolic step in recasting the party's image.
Six announced candidates, some of whom are spending upwards of a quarter of a million dollars in their campaigns, are knocking on doors on Capitol Hill, flying around the country to meet with Democratic National Committee members and sending out hundreds of letters and mailgrams.
By the time this ends in late January, someone may look foolish, and the Democratic governors who have decided to stick their necks out realize it might be them. They also argue it's worth the risk.
"I don't know if we'll agree on someone for chairman , but we agree that something has to be done," said Texas Gov. Mark White. "The national party has to get aligned with mainstream America, and the one group who can demonstrate that pretty well is Democratic governors."
Few have been as assertive about the selection process as the governors, led by Virginia's Charles S. Robb and Arizona's Bruce Babbitt, two younger governors who happen to come from the regions where the party fared worst in November.
Most Democrats agree on the qualities they are seeking in a new chairman, and they agree that none of the six announced candidates quite measures up.
The long resume reads something like this: former elected official from outside Washington with good ties with the various power blocs of the party but who can speak to new voters in the growth areas of the country, and -- by the way -- someone who looks and sounds great on television.
The short form is more crudely put: white, southern male.
Many Democrats agree that the perfect candidate exists: North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt. The only problem is that Hunt isn't available. He prefers to lie low after his bruising defeat at the hands of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and perhaps look ahead to another bid for the Senate in 1986.
One other thing on which many Democrats agree is that Paul G. Kirk Jr., DNC treasurer and a former adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would make an excellent chairman if he weren't connected to Kennedy. But many fear his election would be read as a sign that Kennedy, a possible 1988 presidential contender, had cornered the party machinery.
On Friday, meeting on Hilton Head Island, S.C., the governors decided to get serious, concluding it will take nothing less than an all-out effort to make a difference in the outcome.
"We may be shooting too high," Babbitt acknowledged last week.
But not from lack of trying. Babbitt tried to enlist outgoing Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson, but Matheson said no. Someone made a run at retiring Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.), but that collapsed. There was a boomlet for Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who won praise for his handling of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year. But that would have required a rules change by the DNC. Coelho now says he was never interested in that change, saying it would be the "wrong signal to send."
Lately, the spotlight has been on former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, now president of Duke University. Hunt recently called New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to lobby in Sanford's behalf. But some Democrats have reservations about Sanford.
"There is concern he's from the old days," said one Democrat who attended a dinner hosted by Manatt this week where Sanford and other names were discussed. "People are afraid that the stories would say the Democrats reached into the past."
Manatt's dinner last Tuesday night at the George Town Club was one of two last week at which the party chairmanship was the top item on the agenda. The other was on Wednesday at the Madison Hotel, hosted by Robb. One person who was invited said the original idea for the dinner came from former DNC chairman Robert S. Strauss, but that it became Robb's affair because Strauss provokes jealousy among other Democrats when he becomes too visible in these matters.
A variety of names were tossed around at the dinners, according to participants. Some are state party chairmen such as Charles Whitehead of Florida and Bob Slagle of Texas. Slagle said he wouldn't take it. Other names offered up at the Manatt dinner included former representatives Jim Guy Tucker (D-Ark.) and David Bowen (D-Miss.).
Babbitt and Robb have begun a systematic search of the names of elected Democrats who have left office within the last 10 years. Out of that process may come a name. The governors hope to conclude their search by mid-December, agreeing that if they can't come up with a candidate quickly, they should get out, in fairness to the other announced candidates.
The election will come at the end of January. The others who have announced are Robert Keefe, veteran political consultant and former DNC executive director; Nancy Pelosi, former California Democratic chairman; former Nebraska representative John Cavanaugh; Duane B. Garrett, Mondale's national cochairman, and Sharon Pratt Dixon, DNC member from the District of Columbia.
The younger governors argue that it is crucial to the party's future for them to get involved this time. "After the 1980 election, the Democratic Party establishment circled the wagons, suppressed discussion and went back to the old-time religion," Babbitt said. "There is a real possibility it could happen again. Many of us sat on the sidelines. We understand we've really got to get involved."