If 1988 is only a few days old, how come the 1988 presidential campaign seems as if it has been going on forever? Does memory deceive?

It does not. But mercifully, the longest, busiest, most crowded and circus-like precampaign ever is over at last -- by reason of a calendar turn. The real action is set to begin; now, it's the voters' turn.

In five weeks, Democratic and Republican caucus-goers in Iowa will deliver an important first opinion -- but only the first of many. Over the next four months, a dizzying progression of state primaries and caucuses will follow, including a record 20 in a single day, on March 8.

Summer brings the nominating conventions. The Democrats will be in Atlanta in July; the Republicans go to New Orleans in August. (Geography is strategy: both parties calculate that the South will be the critical battleground in the fall election.) And then on Nov. 8, the nation -- or more precisely, that half of the eligible electorate that bothers to vote -- will choose its 41st president.

It will be the first election in 20 years without an incumbent defending the White House. This matters. Incumbent elections are usually referendums on the recent past; nonincumbent elections get more quickly to the puzzle of the near future.

The Republican presidential nominee, whoever he is, will be trying to pull off something that hasn't been done in 40 years: keeping the same party in power for three consecutive presidential terms.

The GOP nominee will be running against the cycles, short-term and long. America's practical, nonideological voters usually want their next president to address the needs and wants that piled up during the administration of the current one. The instinct for change is among the most resilient in presidential politics, a truism born out by a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month that showed a 15-point preference to vote Democratic.

And in the longer view, historians note that every generation or so the public is swept up by the urge for public activism, its most recent manifestations coming with the elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Another 28 years have passed.

The Republican nominee who tries to ward off these turns of the screw will be defending the mixed legacy of Ronald Reagan. The electorate credits his administration with taming the inflation monster, rebuilding the military, reviving the national spirit. But as budget and trade deficits have mounted, an anxiety has taken hold that the country is no longer the master of its economic destiny, that a day of reckoning awaits. By 3 to 1, voters think the economy is going to get worse, not better -- an opinion they have held throughout 1987.

The landscape would seem to be handsomely arrayed for the Democrats. Yet, by most expert calculation, they remain the underdog party. They have won only one presidential election in the last five. Their performance in the South and West has been especially woeful, and the population shifts to those regions over the last generation make the Electoral College problematic, at best. In this political era, it is said, Democrats will win only squeakers; Republicans will win both squeakers and landslides.

The Democrats' problems go deeper than the map. Their social activism and redistributive fiscal policies were rejected by an increasingly strapped middle class in the 1970s and 1980s. The operative complaint from the voters was -- and remains -- "giveaway." And the party's post-Vietnam foreign policy, rightly or wrongly, came to be seen as a failure of nerve.

Even as the issue agenda appears to be shifting back to Democrats -- as voters talk of investing in education, spending more on health care for the elderly, doing something about the homeless, leveling off the military budget -- the new year still finds the "out" party with the burden of persuading a skeptical electorate that it is hardheaded enough to meet these challenges responsibly.

The Democrats also have a candidate problem; at least, they had one throughout 1987. As various prominent party leaders chose not to run for president last year, the perception took hold that the Democrats were fielding their second string. The seven Democratic candidates are men with solid records, but as yet, they are mostly regional in reputation. Last year would have been a good time to begin to make their names. Instead, the preseason was dominated by the melodramatic comings and goings of former senator Gary Hart of Colorado and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). A certain send-in-the-clowns aura affixed itself to the Democratic presidential effort. "We need this like a dog needs fleas," grumbled former party chairman John White after Hart's surprising return to the race last month. White was reflecting a general exasperation with the events of the year.

Compared to the Democrats' current flailing and hand-wringing, the Republican field benefits, for now, from an undisputed "stature gap." And the GOP heads toward the balloting with a race that is a picture of clarity alongside the anything-goes Democratic muddle.

At least in its initial phase, the Republican contest will pit two prominent figures of the party's center-right establishment, Vice President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), in a contest that is likely to turn on character, roots, leadership -- and gaffes. It probably won't be about ideas or grand agendas, for neither Bush nor Dole has ever found it easy to makes his case to the voters on that lofty ground. They are both managers.

This could yet haunt the Republicans. History is instructive. In 1986, Republicans ran a midterm campaign with neither a theme nor an agenda and lost control of the Senate. And throughout the century, the record is clear: Parties that lash themselves to the status quo might get a pass to the White House for two consecutive terms. But rarely three.The Republicans

The drama of the personal confrontation between Dole and Bush is at the center of the Republican presidential story, but the two do not have the stage to themselves. Five other figures have roles of varying importance.

Three appear to be bit players, scripted to vanish after the first couple of scenes. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. and former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV have struggled to convert their substantial governmental experience and well-developed policy views into political capital. But they have had little success in the preliminaries. They trail in most polls. And none has sufficient financing to survive past the first primary in New Hampshire on Feb. 16 unless he strikes unexpected sparks with the voters.

Then there is the intruder no one can ignore, former television evangelist Pat Robertson. Carrying the banner of an army of committed Christians whose size no one can confidently measure, outsider Robertson is burdened by a mainstream Republican revulsion to his theocratic message and to the fervor of his dedicated amateur followers. Robertson is the classic spoiler. He almost certainly cannot win the nomination but, as Republican consultant Eddie Mahe says, if he can wedge himself between the main rivals, "Pat Robertson probably will have more to do with what happens than either Bush or Dole."

The final figure is President Reagan, officially neutral but privately inclined to his loyal partner, Bush. He is a dominant presence, barely off stage; Reagan is the standard by which most Republican voters judge any successor.

Today, private polls show that the more a voter approves of Reagan, the more he or she is likely to back Bush over Dole. The converse also is true. That gives Dole the opening to argue that he would be a stronger general-election candidate than Bush, better positioned to appeal to independents and Democrats critical of the Reagan record. But in Republican primaries, Bush has the high ground as the preeminent Reagan loyalist.

Reagan has helped Bush by altering the geography and demographics of the Republican Party. Polls show Dole is strongest in the Midwest -- where the GOP has its historical roots -- and among older, better-educated voters. In pre-Reagan years, such a candidate almost certainly would have been favored.

But Bush leads national polls because he is far out front among the constituencies Reagan has brought into the GOP, notably white southerners and young people. In year-end Washington Post-ABC News polls, Dole was almost even with Bush in the Midwest, but trailed by more than 2 to 1 in the South. He was even with Bush among Republicans with graduate degrees, but trailed by more than 2 to 1 among those with a high school education or less. He was almost even with Bush among those over 61, but trailed 5 to 2 among those under 30.

The political calendar gives Dole a chance to score early and thus overcome Bush's current lead. Five of the first 11 delegate contests are in the Midwest. The most important, the Feb. 8 Iowa caucus, is a virtual tossup, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll, and a Dole victory there seems essential to his candidacy.

The quarrel over the Reagan legacy is only one crucial dimension of the Bush-Dole contest. Private polling shows Republican voters are beginning to perceive a difference in the expertise of the two men. Dole has a slight lead among those who rate economic issues and the budget deficit most important. Bush, on the other hand, is seen by most Republicans as better equipped than Dole to deal with foreign policy challenges, a reward for his heavily publicized overseas travels as vice president.

Absent sharp differences on specific issues or broad philosophies, both men are arguing their leadership credentials, which are very different. Dole, who has been in elective office for 38 straight years, the last 27 on Capitol Hill, is a proven legislative craftsman. But like Lyndon B. Johnson, the last Senate leader to reach the White House, he often seems to reduce world and national issues to the political brokerage terms of the cloakroom operator.

Bush, whose only personal election victories occurred 20 years ago in two House contests in an affluent Houston congressional district, has a far broader range of experience, including a successful oil business career and a series of high governmental appointive jobs. But his specific achievements are hard to document.

Bush, one close friend said, thinks of Dole as "a serious competitor, a big-league player, shrewd and tough. But he genuinely believes that Dole would be an inferior president, because he's never run anything. He's a career legislator with no clear sense of direction."

Dole, for his part, has often expressed something close to contempt for Bush's resume. "Dole thinks he has been a player, while Bush has been riding the bench," Republican consultant John Deardourff said.

The Kansas butter-and-egg man's son has some of the same envy of wealthy, Yale-educated, blue-blood Bush as Lyndon Johnson felt toward the Kennedys. "I think he's had it pretty easy," Dole said recently of Bush on an NBC "Meet the Press" interview, where Dole complained of the "millions of dollars" of government-financed staff, security and transportation Bush is able to deploy as he travels the country. "We're pretty good friends, but it's a pretty tense contest . . . . We both want to win."

That is putting it mildly. Given Dole's long history of acerbic attacks on political rivals, many expect the moment will come when he will level his sarcasm on his privileged foe. "Dole is itching for that fight," Deardourff says, "and Bush will learn he can't avoid it."

"If it happens," said Mahe, like Deardourff a neutral in the struggle, "that will be the point of greatest danger for Bob Dole. There's a real possibility he will overplay it and come off being very mean and hostile."

Edward J. Rollins, who is heading Kemp's campaign, and V. Lance Tarrance, Kemp's pollster, both believe Dole can come out best in a personal confrontation. "Bush does not do well under pressure," Rollins remarked. "Dole has survival skills," Tarrance added. "He's tough as a boot."

But a senior adviser to Bush expressed skepticism about the personal shootout script. "You'll see them push each other around a little bit," he predicted, "but this is like the Super Bowl and no one wants to make a big mistake. There won't be any prolonged flailing away at each other."

One thing that may inhibit them is the fact that each man can hope to win the other's supporters if he does nothing to alienate them. The Post-ABC polls show each man the clear second choice for a majority of the other's supporters. And neither has the intensity of support that marked Reagan in the past -- or Robertson today.

"Either one {Bush or Dole} can lose 50 percent of his support if something happens," Mahe remarked, joining many others in saying that factor enhances Robertson's role in the race.

Mahe suggested this scenario: "Suppose Dole finishes first in Iowa, Robertson second and Bush third. Rightly or wrongly, there are so many Republicans scared of Robertson, they'd pick up Bob Dole and heave him bodily onto the podium in New Orleans as the nominee."

Others doubt the reaction would be that quick. Pro-Bush party leaders in the 20 states that vote on March 8's "Super Tuesday" and in later primaries in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and California would resist a Dole bandwagon. But given the passion of Robertson's followers and the commensurate fears he engenders, the duration of Robertson's run is crucial, especially to Bush, who loses more of those ardently pro-Reagan voters to the outsider candidate than does Dole.

No one is certain whether Robertson's television polish will diminish opposition to his candidacy, as his managers hope, but the longer he stays in the race, many feel, the better the chance of Dole overhauling Bush.

Dole needs some kind of break, because the near-unanimous estimate of rivals and neutrals is that he has once again -- as in 1980 -- neglected the organizational challenge of winning a presidential nomination.

A neutral consultant, J. Brian Smith, says the Dole "staff and organization are in utter disarray; there's certainly no campaign plan. I think Dole may find he can score a victory in Iowa but he lacks the organization to leverage it into places where he's still not that well known."

Bush, by contrast, is credited even by such rival strategists as Rollins with having built a first-class national political machine. "Bush views himself as the head of the team," Smith said, "and he is willing to let the others do their jobs until they screw up."

So far, they have not -- and that could be a telling factor in this intriguing race.The Democrats

Imagine a theatrical production called "The Riddle of the Seven Democrats." Its core dramatic tension can be succinctly stated: It's so difficult to conceive of how any of the characters can win the nomination that it's not impossible to conjure up how each might. Or how none might.

It's being put on by a troupe of thoughtful, diligent, workmanlike if not quite inspiring players. It's about to open on Broadway, after a long and bumpy road tour during which it lost its leading man. The plot's a muddle. The ending's a guaranteed surprise. Only the first act is predictable: some Democrat will emerge as the new leading man, courtesy of Iowa and New Hampshire. He will "shoot out of nowhere" -- just as Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) did in 1968, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) in 1972, former governor Jimmy Carter in 1976, former senator Gary Hart in 1984.

What makes 1988 different is that the unknowns of yesteryear all had something to pivot off of: a sitting president, a front-runner, a war, Watergate. This year's group has no such prop. Worse, they bear a collective albatross -- not entirely fairly -- for having been part of a production judged by the critics to be a preseason flop.

When Hart got out of the race (temporarily, as it developed) last May, he threw his competitors farther out of sync than could have been imagined at the time. They have spent the past eight months struggling to fill a void that will not be filled until the voters get involved. But the struggle has left an impression of furious motion without much progress, reinforcing doubts about the quality and stature of the pack.

Part of that motion has come in the form of a dozen debates -- an unprecedented number for the year before an election. These encounters have tended to be arguments over policy implementation rather than direction or philosophy. With the exception of Jesse L. Jackson, who espouses a blunt anticorporate, soak-the-rich platform, the Democratic candidates steer clear of sharp ideological edges. They try to come across as fixers and managers. There are no demagogues in the field and, with the exception of Jackson, no stirring performers. All walk a cautious line between not wanting to pander and not wanting to offend.

Because the field lacks an ideological cleavage, the most sensible way to organize it is tactically, geographically, stylistically. Here, differences are more readily discernible.

Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has raised more money ($10.6 million) than any Democratic candidate ever in the year before a presidential campaign -- more than twice the amount of his nearest rival. But critics say his message has been small-bore, timid, not yet presidential. Some see a connection; it's almost as if he's already sitting on a lead. "You get the impression life was too easy for Dukakis in the first months after Hart got out," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, who is not working for any of the candidates. "The money rolled in, and they were never faced with the discipline of formulating a message. They're still a lot more oriented to selling management than leadership, and they ought to know better."

Dukakis' chief asset on the stump is that he projects a take-charge presence; his main liability is a brusqueness of style that tends toward smugness, especially when he is under attack. He has a huge and skilled Iowa operation; he is the odds-on favorite in New Hampshire; he has campaign staffs in 27 states and pockets deep enough to survive a couple of rainy days. His first chance to take control of the race will occur on Super Tuesday. If Dukakis can break out of his northeastern-liberal niche and win some votes in the South, he'll be hard to stop.

The question for Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) is whether he is a fad candidate or something more durable. His candidacy took off after the Hart womanizing and Biden plagiarism episodes; Simon's squareness became ever more reassuring, and he has been playing it for all it is worth. He calls for an activist government and a balanced budget; he's been fuzzy on how to do both at the same time. This could grow into a major campaign problem. For now, Simon and his advisers have concluded that the voters want to believe in something, and damn the math.

Even if they are right, a more perilous challenge looms. Is Simon a sufficiently commanding presence? In the legislative bodies where he has served, he has always been more the goad than the leader. In the presidential debates, he has been content to say his piece but not fully engage, not assert control. Simon has invested heavily in Iowa; before Hart's return, he was the leader in polls there. If Simon wins, he will challenge Dukakis in New Hampshire. If not, his candidacy could end quickly.

For Jackson, 1987 was a very good year. He made his campaign staff more professional, shored up his support among black elected officials who kept their distance from his 1984 campaign, and found his voice with a populist message that appeals to economic victims of all kinds. He has one overwhelming problem. It is what he calls the "Jesse, but . . . " problem -- the proposition that his candidacy is not taken seriously because he is black.

Jackson's critics say the opposite is true -- that he gets a free pass because of his color, that a white candidate with his Third World sympathies and radical economic proposals would have not gotten nearly as far. Whichever is true, look for Jackson to confront this issue head-on in coming weeks, with a direct appeal to white voters to open their hearts and minds to the idea of a black president.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) has pulled out of Iowa (making a virtue of necessity) and has consolidated his base among moderate southern Democratic elected officials who don't want another northern liberal on the top of the ticket. Last fall, he integrated issues and tactics handsomely by accusing his rivals of being weak on defense. It was a case of expert packaging of small differences for all they were worth.

Gore is hoping that the Democratic muddle persists through the early calendar -- that no Democrats get a slingshot out of Iowa and New Hampshire. If one does come roaring South, then Gore hopes to become the champion of the forces that will want to rally against the front-runner. If he does well, he will have a strong claim to be on the ticket. As for the top spot -- well, he's not yet 40, but by the time of the Democratic National Convention he will be.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) lives or dies on one day: Feb. 8, the day of the Iowa caucuses. He has moved virtually his entire campaign to Iowa, conceding for now the white South where he once tried to compete with Gore. For Gephardt, the road to Dixie now runs through Des Moines.

Gephardt has run into message fatigue; nothing he's tried, from trade to farm policy, seems to stick. Look for him to challenge Jackson as the populist candidate. Says his campaign manager, William Carrick: "Some Democrats got so battle-scarred by the hyperinflation of the Carter years that they have become accommodationist with corporate America. But there is an appetite out there for some business-bashing."

Every campaign has its own press corps favorite. He is usually plucky, unlucky, bright, witty, wise, charming, courageous, frank, and has a splendid sense of the absurd. The reporters figure it's safe to give their hearts over to him (privately, of course) because they know he cannot win. This year's model is Bruce Babbitt. The reason he "can't win" has to do with the unhappy relationship between his face, his voice, his mannerisms and the television camera. They don't get along. For all these reasons, look for the former Arizona governor to get a rash of favorable press in the weeks ahead. Is America ready for means-testing, consumption taxes and work-place democracy? These are among the provocative ideas in the field. The question remains: Will they be aired?

Hart's comings and goings have been the stuff of soap opera. His challenge now is to get his candidacy off that level, and back onto the plane of serious discussion, at which he is well-versed. But by casting his return as a me-against-the-world proposition, the former Colorado senator may have doomed the exercise from the outset. Does America really want a renegade in the Oval Office?

Someone else? Last year turned out to be a splendid year not to be a candidate. Does that mean that 1988 will be a good year to be New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo? He continues to protest his uninterest so fervently that "not even my mother believes me." If this race doesn't clarify quickly after Super Tuesday, if the prospect of a brokered convention looms with Jackson as a prominent broker, if the candidates all capture their bases but not much more, Cuomo's telephone is going to ring. If it rings, he'll answer. Far-fetched? Sure, but so was 1987.