It's altogether too early to have to think about the 1988 Republican presidential campaign, which is already in semi-full swing. But thanks to Republican pollster Lance Tarrance, we have a way of intelligently viewing the action. The 1988 GOP race, he half-seriously suggests, could turn out to be "a mirror image" of the 1984 Democratic campaign. Now that's an interesting perspective. Consider:

The Favorite. The admirably loyal vice president who is the first choice of most of the party's Establishment.

Likely Strategy. Through force of broad, disparate and important endorsements, to create the bandwagon- inevitability psychology that would enable the candidate to "corner" the nomination instead of being required to "capture" it after a costly battle. The fallback strategy for the Favorite (for whom this is the last chance to be the nominee of his party) is to amass the necessary stockpile of political and financial resources to outlast his challengers and thus become the last tree standing in the Republican forest by the end of the primary season. The pre-nomination role of Walter Mondale will be played by George Bush.

The Young Challenger. Trumpeting fresh ideas and the next generation of leadership, this candidate will strive to present himself as the spiritual heir (as opposed to the institutional heir) to his party's most beloved recent chief executive, who for Democrats is John Kennedy and for Republicans is Ronald Reagan.

Likely Strategy. To enlist "naturalized" rather than "native-born" party voters -- those whose parents or grandparents probably belonged to the other party -- by emphasizing the future and optimism. To succeed, the Young Challenger must appeal strongly to a strange combination of philosophical true believers and political agnostics. The pre-nomination role of Gary Hart will be played by Jack Kemp.

Historical Footnote. Throughout our nation's political life, certain identifiable groups -- regional, religious, racial, occupational and ethnic -- have at different times been overwhelmingly loyal to one political party. For example, FDR's New Deal coalition relied on strong support from both southern white Protestants and northern Irish Catholic voters, two groups whose own membership was not then considered eligible for national political leadership.

But eventually, some members of the loyal group are no longer satisfied with patronage. They want power and the party's nomination of "one of their own" to high office. Generally, the first time a member of such a group does run, the group's collective pride overcomes individual misgivings the members might have about "their" candidate. Irish Catholics in 1960, still feeling themselves outsiders, voted overwhelmingly for John Kennedy. With similar feelings in 1976, southern white Protestants were the key to Jimmy Carter's victory.

Today, the two most important "outsider" groups in our parties are black voters for the Democrats and white born-again Christian voters for the Republicans. Each group provided one out of five votes won by the major party tickets in 1984.

The Outsider Wild Card. The self- selected, non-officeholder, non-politician who can energize the pride of the Outsider group, even if it means alienating that group's established political leadership, which has already worked out its own arrangements with the party establishment.

Likely Strategy. To galvanize the group's voters to make the other candidates confront the Outsider's issues -- whether concern for a Palestinian homeland or the conviction that Methuselah really did celebrate 969 birthdays. The party and the mainstream candidates are forced to address the group's agenda and the group's political importance to the party. The role of Jesse Jackson in 1988 may well be filled by Rev. Pat Robertson, the founder of The 700 Club and the Christian Broadcast Network.

Recall 1984 whenever Mondale and Hart shared a platform with Jackson. After first accusing each other of felonious perfidy and second-degree pandering, the two white candidates would turn sweetly to Rev. Jackson and compliment him on his tie or his sentence structure. This excessive deference, born out of fear of alienating any part of the Jackson constituency, did not go unnoticed. Groveling is not deemed presidential by most voters.

So it will be fascinating to watch the creative squirming of Bush and Kemp and maybe Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (who could be running as the Only Republican in the race) when each is asked whether he believes the United States is and/or ought to be a Christian nation, and a lot more.