For the past 12 months, several campaigns for the 1988 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations have been actively waged. For the Better Knowns -- those candidates already deemed by pols, polls and press to be legitimate national challengers -- this has been a time for correcting bad habits and for trying both new approaches and new people. For the Unknowns, this is a more critical period: in order to be ''invited'' to Presidential Spring Training in early 1987, they must impress party people, politicians and semi-pompous pundits.
Here's the first report card for the first Presidential Primary of 1988, the term extending from July 1985 to July 1986.
Vice President George Bush. George Bush is a man without an issue to call his own. He last won an election on his own in 1968. Ever since then, his public offices have depended upon his impressing and pleasing others; that frequently can encourage the emphasizing of loyalty over originality. But vice presidents who seek promotion to higher office on their own must have some issue(s) with which they are identified. Consider that Nancy Reagan is widely known for her work against drug abuse: this means that George Bush has become the first vice president since John Nance Garner under FDR to have a lower profile on public issues than the first lady.
Compare the recent Bush actions with Ronald Reagan's strategy in 1979. Stoutly resisting all pressure from his opponents as well as all nervous entreaties from his own partisans, Ronald Reagan heeded the sage counsel of John Sears, who was his manager at the time, and held off formally declaring his candidacy until Nov. 11, 1979, only 17 weeks before the 1980 New Hampshire primary. The logic was sound: there can be no race until the front-runner (who was then Reagan) enters the contest. Compare that with Bush's embarrassing entanglement in the spring of 1986 in something called the Michigan precinct caucuses, the political equivalent of mud-wrestling. It has not been a good year for George Bush. In fact, it's been a bad year.
Rep. Jack Kemp. When the front-running vice president appeared to stumble, the ever-fickle political colony immediately turned its gaze upon the Buffalo congressman, whose candidacy was not prepared for that scrutiny. Kemp seemed to lose some of the confidence he had shown.
It is only a mild overstatement to say that Jack Kemp rescued Ronald Reagan from the scrap heap of history. For close to half a century, Republicans had been losing national elections while sourly prescribing root canal work for the voters. Kemp's idea of economic growth through tax cuts provided Reagan and the 1980 GOP with a ''future'' issue on which to run, optimistically.
Ten years ago, Kemp was the master of ''wholesale'' politics -- the ability to communicate effectively with all voters at the same time, instead of ''retailing'' the electorate through customized appeals to small geographical, occupational or ethnic-religious groups.
But at two moments during the First Primary, Kemp insisted on retailing when he ought to have been wholesaling. The more serious occasion was on House passage of the tax-cut bill. Kemp couldn't decide whether to support the House bill and the president, to play legislative politics or to play presidential politics. He looked unsure and showed no leadership on an issue that had been his as much as anybody's. Earlier, he had amended his own tax-cut bill to provide a break for oilmen. This was long before the drop in prices and was never adequately explained as more than a pitch to an important fund-raising constituency. It has not been a particularly good year for Kemp.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. The spotlight has treated him well. He has been loyal to the president and effective in leading the Senate Republicans. He has made everyone take a second look at him. A very good year.
Sen. Gary Hart. In answer to Walter Mondale's ''Where's the beef?'' question, Gary Hart has spent the term providing a whole side of meaty position papers that have played to generally positive reviews. Hart has intellectually done the right thing, even if it does involve a little bit of fighting the last war.
But there is still no emotional linkage between Hart and the voters. "Where's the beef?" was more about "Who is Gary Hart?" than about New Ideas. Those questions, along with a $3 million campaign debt, remain unresolved. Not a bad year.
Gov. Mario Cuomo. He has a constituency; liberals like him. In cover stories in both Time and Newsweek, the New York governor's faults of brittleness and hubris were addressed, but the stories were favorable. He remains a parochial figure, however, and may suffer from the out-of-sync syndrome that plagued John Glenn: getting a lot of media coverage and attention too long before the campaign to help you with voters. A so-so year.
Terrific years were had by former Virginia governor Chuck Robb -- who did something neither Nelson Rockefeller in New York nor Ronald Reagan in California could do: turn over the governorship to a candidate of his own choosing, and change his state politically too -- and Rev. Pat Robertson, who was the political David up against the twin Goliaths of Kemp and Bush in the Michigan precinct caucuses. He prevailed. How important is Pat Robertson? So important that worried Republicans offer to show anyone who's interested videotapes of Robertson's praying for hurricanes to desist or crooked limbs to straighten. They hope to discredit him with the profane press.
And then there's Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who provided the Democrats, on the tax-reform issue, with two things the party desperately needs -- leadership and a new idea -- and who retailed that issue in the Senate effectively and wholesaled it outside the Senate. Bradley is the only Democrat about whom other Democrats regularly say: I wish he'd run for president.