Scene One: It's the first weekend of spring, 1986. Presidential hopeful Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is making a four-city swing through Iowa, the state that holds the nation's first presidential caucuses. This is his 15th visit in the past year.

Scene Two: It's the first weekend of spring, 1990. The New Hampshire Democratic Party is holding its annual fund-raising dinner, a plum speaking assignment for anyone with presidential ambition. But the evening's keynoter is Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who's not running. "Four years ago at this point, the presidential candidates were everywhere," she tells activists in the state that holds the nation's first primary. "Today they are nowhere to be seen."

After 20 years of unrestrained growth, the presidential campaign season has finally shrunk. Its start has been delayed by three factors -- the popularity of the sitting president, the preoccupation of many of the potential 1992 runners with their 1990 reelection campaigns to lower office, and the rude fate that befell early-bird Gephardt after he won the Iowa caucuses in 1988.

While most Democratic leaders profess delight at what Mikulski called the "eerie silence" along the presidential primary trail, some have begun to voice concern.

"The only way an 'out' party can convey a national message is through a presidential campaign," said longtime Democratic activist Richard Moe. "And it takes time. We are going to pay a price if we don't have serious leadership out there trying to articulate a message."

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Ronald H. Brown takes the more conventional view: "Frankly, I think it's good for American politics. Many people think the process goes on too long. Voters get tired of it."

With no presidential candidates on hand to make mischief, the DNC, meeting last weekend in Indianapolis, adopted a set of 1992 nominating rules with uncharacteristic speed and civility. Meanwhile, leaders of the party's moderate/conservative wing gathered the same weekend in New Orleans to discuss issues and ideas they hope will emerge in 1992.

At both meetings, party leaders tested attack lines on President Bush, accusing him of offering "timid, poll-driven" leadership and "bushlips" tax pledges. Yet at the end of the weekend, few Democrats were kidding themselves about the elusiveness of a target who, in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, had a 60 percent approval rating among Democrats.

"We're in a position of having to make a case against Bush on the basis of opportunities missed, and that's not an easy thing to do in politics," said Jody Powell, who was press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, at the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC) meeting in New Orleans. "Going after the Bush White House is sort of like rasslin' with a down mattress," he continued. "It assumes the shape of your own body."

Powell was Carter's sidekick in 1975 when the obscure Georgia ex-governor arrived in Iowa long before anyone else in his presidential class, shook every hand on the landscape, camped out in living rooms, and slowly built enough grass-roots support to win the Iowa caucuses. Eleven month later, he was president.

For the next dozen years, the Carter strategy became the model for every presidential hopeful who started the race with more stamina than stature. The length of the campaign season expanded geometrically. In 1975-76, Carter spent 32 days in the Hawkeye State. In 1985-88, Gephardt spent 148 days there -- and rented an apartment in Des Moines so his family could be there when he wasn't.

But in winning Iowa, Gephardt didn't capture the trophy he'd been seeking. There was no cover story about him in Time and Newsweek; there was no glowing coverage on the network news. All he got was a round of skeptical coverage from the press and blistering attack ads from his rivals. Then he ran out of money. Then he dropped out of the race.

"Because of what happened to Gephardt, you ain't going to see a lot of camping out in Iowa this time," said Paul Tully, the DNC political director.

Many of those in the potential class of 1992 are going to be running hard this year, but in their own states. Govs. Mario M. Cuomo (N.Y.) and Bill Clinton (Ark.) and Sens. Bill Bradley (N.J.) and Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) all have reelection campaigns. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.) is not up for reelection, but he's shown no interest in competing in a marathon. Jesse L. Jackson is focusing on the television show he will launch this fall and on the campaign for D.C. statehood -- hardly a presidential-caliber issue.

"I am not alarmed at all by the prospect of a late start," said Brown. "We have lots of candidates who can get up and run in a hurry."

One lesson Gephardt drew from 1988 is that a candidate needs a huge stash of money to withstand the vicissitudes of defeat -- or victory. That will be even more true in 1992 if California moves its primary to the front of the nominating calendar. In effect, fund-raising will become the first primary of 1992.

The party is full of potential candidates who are well-situated to play the money game. Bradley has already raised $9 million for his Senate reelection campaign and built a nationwide donor base in the process. Gore and Jackson have their financial networks in place from 1988. Bentsen, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been the Senate's leading recipient of political action committee (PAC) contributions over the past five years. Cuomo, as governor of a large and wealthy state, could raise large amounts overnight.

All of which leaves one question: With no candidates and no campaign on the horizon, what does the party do with itself in the meantime?

"We need to have an intellectual revival in this party before we can have a political revival," said Alvin From, director of the DLC, the corporate-funded centrist group that last weekend adopted a creed declaring that Democrats' mission is to "expand opportunity, not government."

The conference, which attracted such party centrists as House Majority Leader Gephardt, Gore, Clinton (the incoming DLC president) and Sens. Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Charles S. Robb (Va.) -- all of whom may one day run for president -- also endorsed an issue with more populist appeal: the proposal of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) to restore progressivity to the federal tax system by cutting Social Security payroll taxes.

But tax populism got a decidedly muted response from the DLC audience, which consisted of roughly a hundred elected officials and several hundred corporate lobbyists.

Indeed, this may have been the only Democratic issues conference in recent memory underwritten by the likes of ARCO, the American Petroleum Institute, Philip Morris Management Corp., Consolidated Natural Gas Co., Fluor Corp., Georgia Pacific Corp., Marathon Oil, Martin Marietta Corp., Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Prudential-Bache Securities, SmithKline Beecham, Salomon Brothers, U.S. Tobacco and Xerox.

"We're a helluva long way from Dubuque," one party activist said, surveying the corporate lobbyists in the audience.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.