Pat Robertson doesn't want to be called a preacher any more and, somewhere along the way, Jesse L. Jackson seems to have lost his formal ministerial designation. He's just plain Jesse wherever he goes.

Nonetheless, these two political preachers are increasingly likely to have extraordinary, and perhaps decisive, influence over who will be the next president of the United States. There's no precedent for such a prospect in American political history.

The reasons are obvious.

Since 1952, when television began to dominate the political process, presidential nomination campaigns have been decided earlier in each election year. In the TV age, national conventions no longer are places for real political battles and true decision-making. They're assemblages of delegates convened to ratify a fait accompli, participate in coronations. They're national TV stages for the parties to present a message to the electorate. The only suspense is over the vice presidential choice, never a presidential nominee.

This year, that previous experience does not apply.

Initial Iowa and New Hampshire results have been inconclusive for Republican and Democratic candidates. No clear front-runner exists. The field remains crowded, and the race promises to see-saw for weeks as the many candidates divide up convention delegates. Both party's nomination contests -- increasingly bitter, to judge by the language and tactics employed in Iowa and New Hampshire -- may not be decided until the Atlanta and New Orleans conventions next summer.

In that regard, I believe that the Democratic nominee will be one of those now running, not a last-minute Lone Ranger party savior such as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo or the other usual suspects, Sens. Bill Bradley (N.J.) or Sam Nunn (Ga.). No candidate who labored so long, risked so much, compiled such debt and endured such a marathon will willingly turn over the prize to someone who never entered the race. Human nature, if not political logic, suggests that the losers eventually will coalesce around someone who shared their experience.

Thus, the critical final factor is likely to be the private bargaining process among the candidates themselves.

Here, the roles of the preachers could be crucial.

The subject of religion in politics has always produced a schizophrenic reaction among voters. Americans want it -- and want none of it. They have hungered for and responded to those who offered a moral message. At the same time, they've guarded against the emotion by erecting constitutional barriers between church and state. In colonial days, they were stirred by the preaching of grim, fire-breathing evangelists such as Jonathan Edwards. In more modern times, to pick only one example, they avidly followed the public pronouncements on political issues of the "radio priest," Father Coughlin.

Although American politicians have always invoked God's name and claimed to understand divine will, American voters have never supported a minister for the presidency. Of the 39 presidents, 24 were lawyers and six were generals. The rest came from the professional ranks of teaching, engineering or elective office -- and, most recently, acting.

Nothing about this surprising political year suggests that voters are in any mood to alter the pattern of rejecting religious candidates. But this year, for the first time, two preachers are serious candidates. Neither Jackson nor Robertson will be his party's nominee. Nor will either likely be on his party's ticket. But each could go to the conventions with anywhere from one-fourth to one-third or more of the committed delegates.

If so, a divided field would give them the biggest political bargaining chips. It would also put them in position to wield great influence on the nominees and their party's stand on public issues, something no others like them have accomplished in two centuries of national life.

In last week's column, detailing the unsuccessful presidential aspirations of incumbent vice presidents since Martin Van Buren 152 years ago, I commented: "The only way a sitting vice president has ascended directly to the presidency has been because of death in office. That has happened eight times." A reader notes that I might have added, "and once from presidential resignation under threat of impeachment," referring to Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.