DE WITT, ARK. -- Flying low over the rice fields of the Arkansas delta, fresh off campaign stops at a shoe factory and a one-room country church, Gov. Bill Clinton (D) muses: "I may have blown my timing."

He is not talking about the trial of running for a fifth term in a year when voters seem fed up with politicians. He is talking about the tribulation of not running for president in 1992.

Clinton promised his constituents he would serve a full four-year term when he announced for reelection eight months ago. Back then, President Bush's approval ratings were in the stratosphere, and 1992 seemed like a good year for a young presidential hopeful to hang tight in a holding pattern.

Now Bush's polls are in a tailspin, the economy on the brink of recession and the Democratic Party is preening a new populist plumage, all of which is quickening interest in 1992.

"Lots of the potential Democratic contenders who've spent the past year getting ready for 1996 are starting to reset their clocks," said Richard Moe, a veteran Democratic strategist. "Ninety-two is looking better than they thought."

True, no one is working living rooms in Iowa. On that front, the next presidential campaign is far behind 1988's withering pace. Four years ago at this stage, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) had made 145 campaign trips to 38 states.

But if the 1992 wannabees are sticking close to home -- many are tied down by their own reelection campaigns -- they're also using the protracted battle over the federal budget deficit to frame and sharpen the economic messages that they will take on the road next year.

"This is a peculiar moment when you shouldn't watch what they do, but what they say," said Michael McCurry, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. "The first Democrat who can lay out a credible road map for the future and show he has the gravitas to be president is going to take George Bush's job away from him."

That kind of optimism flows not just from the prospect of an economic downturn, but also from a belief that Democrats finally have seized the offensive on an issue Republicans have hammered them with for a decade: taxes.

"We have begun to redefine the debate from 'To tax or not to tax?' to 'Who pays, and is it fair?' " said Gephardt, the House majority leader. "This gives us a shot at reclaiming large groups of middle-class Americans who haven't been excited about Democrats for quite some time.

"I think George Bush can be beaten in 1992," Gephardt continued. "In the last two months, he's shown a real failure of leadership. He needed to explain to the American people why they were being asked to swallow strong medicine, but he didn't do it."

Though friends say Gephardt would love to be the candidate, he too promised not to run in 1992 when he sought the post of majority leader last year. Moreover, he noted, a campaign for the White House is "simply not compatible with" the demands of that job, which requires him to juggle the sometimes contradictory roles of opposition leader and coalition builder in a divided government. He felt that whipsaw most acutely earlier this month when he had to honor his commitment to the Bush administration to endorse the deficit-reduction deal negotiated at the Andrews Air Force Base budget summit, a package he said he "detest{s}."

Democrats from outside Washington were spared that sort of juggling act. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder were the two most outspoken critics of the deal, though they chose different angles of attack.

Cuomo, a liberal, made his case on tax progressivity grounds, arguing that the Andrews summit accord and last week's Senate bill, which resembles it, unfairly place the burden of new taxes on the middle class and the needy. He urged legislation that "charts a new course of tax fairness" by aiming its heaviest hit at the wealthy.

Wilder, a fiscal conservative, argued against tax increases of any kind and urged the federal government to follow his example in Virginia and go after the deficit with spending cuts.

As a freshman governor who has been in office less than a year, Wilder is not seen as a likely presidential candidate in 1992. His ambitious travel schedule and aggressive harvesting of media interest in the nation's first elected black governor, however, has led party insiders to conclude that he is angling for the number two spot on the ticket.

Cuomo, who is coasting toward reelection next month against weak opposition, probably will not decide until next spring whether to run for president. He first must confront his state's massive budget deficit. Despite $1.8 billion in new taxes enacted last spring, New York faces a projected budget shortfall of $2 billion to $3 billion next year.

Cuomo is the one true "big foot" in the Democratic field, and many other potential members of the Class of '92 are likely to hold back to see if he steps forward.

Among those almost sure to wait is two-time candidate Jesse L. Jackson, who does not need a long campaign to build up name recognition, and who has branched out into a new career as a public affairs talk show host. If Cuomo runs, Jackson might not want to get in, fearing he would lose some of the 7 million-vote base he built up in 1988.

As usual, the Senate is brimming with possible presidential candidates, including Bill Bradley (N.J.), Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.), Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), Bob Kerrey (Neb.), Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Charles S. Robb (Va.).

Not one of these senators has made any overt moves, though Nunn had the look of a man who was putting his resume in order this summer when he abandoned his antiabortion stance and resigned last spring from a country club that did not admit women to its membership. But if the Democrats are headed down the road of economic populism, Nunn is not likely to be the standard-bearer. He was one of the Reagan administration's most reliable Democratic votes during much of the 1980s.

Bradley, the principal author of the 1986 tax bill that created the now-infamous "tax bubble," ran into criticism at a closed Democratic Senate caucus last week when he balked at a Bentsen plan to eliminate the bubble in exchange for a drop in the capital gains tax. Later in the week, Bradley voted for a Gore amendment that would have burst the bubble, but he remained adamantly opposed to a drop in the capital gains tax, arguing that it would be a tax break for the rich and that there was no credible evidence it would spur growth. He later voted against the Senate deficit-reduction package, principally on the ground that it did not cut the defense budget enough.

Bradley spent 1989 building a national fund-raising base but has not been behaving like a presidential candidate this year. This past spring he gave his New Jersey constituents a six-year pledge when he announced for a third Senate term. More telling, perhaps, is that after years of steeping himself in the intricacies of the Soviet and East Bloc economies, he has not stepped forward this year and tried to lead a national discourse on those suddenly topical issues.

Bentsen, chairman of the Finance Committee, has been facing problems much the same as those encountered by Gephardt this fall: he is forced to search for legislative compromise rather than score partisan points. He is planning a series of speeches early next year charting a course for a nation coming off what he calls a "Decade of Indulgence," but most of his associates are betting that he will not run.

Kerrey has allied himself with the economic populism of the season but has made more of a mark as one of the few critics of the president's Persian Gulf policy. Kerrey has been on national television raising "very strong reservations" about what he describes as a policy of risking American blood for foreign oil.

Gore introduces himself on the reelection trail as someone who "used to be the next president of the United States." Few doubt he will run again, but most associates think he does not want to risk the stigma of being a two-time loser, and thus will not get in unless he concludes there is a high probability of success.

Robb has had a quiet first term in the Senate, and most of his associates say they doubt he will seek the White House in a year when its occupant is up for reelection.

From the gubernatorial ranks, Dianne Feinstein and John Silber could become national figures overnight if they are elected in California and Massachusetts, respectively.

Clinton, if reelected for a fifth term, would become the nation's most senior governor -- at the age of 44. He makes it clear he is interested in running for president one day and argues that economic populism alone cannot carry the day for Democrats.

"By all means, we ought to have an equity debate, but if the only thing we seem to be preoccupied with is how you split up the pie, we're not going to cut it," he said.

In this state, Clinton has been pushing policies that attempt to empower people and force them to accept responsibility. One such program teaches parents how to prepare their children for school; another fines parents if they miss parent-teacher conferences.

Clinton hopes to carry such ideas to a national audience next year as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that is in the process of organizing state chapters. A cover for a presidential campaign? He says he has told his voters he is hitching on for another four years in Arkansas.

But, in a different context, he also notes: "People will let you change your mind if you give them a good explanation for why you're changing."