Like Sleeping Beauty, the Democratic presidential nomination lies there waiting to be kissed as wary politicians hover over her, wondering whether instead of dozing, she may be dead.
Still, Democratic suitors circle in the hope that despite all the signs of a calamity for their party in 1992, their nomination will be worth having. In the first week after the allied military victory over Iraq produced dream-like approval ratings for President Bush, there has been a flurry of political activity, including:
Former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, an unknown commodity to much of the nation, saying yesterday he will enter the contest in a few weeks to run as an "aggressively pro-business liberal," combining strong support for environmental and social legislation with a belief that Democrats "must drop the old rhetoric of class warfare and corporate bashing."
In one of those emblematic personnel moves noticed only by the most ardent aficionados of presidential politics, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) announcing that he has rehired Don Foley, a key aide in Gephardt's 1988 presidential bid, "to coordinate political and fund-raising activities."
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, trying to build on this advantage by assailing Republicans for attempting to score political points off Democrats who voted against the war. In doing so, Gore himself has scored points by currying favor with those who disagreed with his stand on the war. Aides to Gore who once doubted whether he would run in 1992 say he is seriously considering the contest.
Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who has resolutely refused to raise state taxes, pressing his highly unusual message as an anti-tax Democrat, intriguing party strategists with the prospect that a black candidate could also be one of the most conservative in the field.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Maine) becoming one of the Democrats' most visible spokesmen and some of his colleagues, particularly such northern liberals as Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), encouraging him to consider seeking the 1992 nomination. Still, Simon said yesterday that "the odds are probably against" Mitchell running.
Some Democrats, fearing that the party could end up with a weak nominee who would drag Democratic House and Senate candidates down to defeat, trying to draft a "safe candidate" such as Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.), the 1988 vice presidential nominee. The theory behind the draft movement is that he would provide protection for Senate and House candidates, even if he lost.
In an effort to stop the flood of pessimism that has engulfed the party, top congressional Democrats and Democratic National Committee officials have been lecturing some of the party's political consultants on the need to avoid funereal talk.
Whether as the result of these entreaties or not, a new line began emerging from top Democrats yesterday that the party's 1992 nomination would be very much worth having.
"The nomination is such a huge prize that it won't go begging," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic polltaker. "For four or five months, the Democratic nominee for president will be the second most important politician in America."
Not all Democratic consultants, however, were toeing this line. Pollster Harrison Hickman said "the odds of having a contested presidential election in this country are only slightly better than having a contested presidential election in Kuwait."
One potential candidate who does not share that view is Gephardt, who has been quietly assembling a network of experienced advisers and continues to send messages to potential donors to keep their checkbooks ready.
The possibility of a paucity of candidates has stirred speculation that a number of long shots may run, including two from Massachusetts, home state of former governor Michael S. Dukakis, who led the party to defeat in 1988. Besides Tsongas, Boston University President John Silber, who lost a race for governor last fall, also could be a candidate. Former senator George McGovern (S.D.), who in 1972 carried just one state as the Democratic nominee, has been counting support in Iowa, but friends say he is having second thoughts.
Bentsen, 70, who first won his Senate seat running as a Tory Democrat against George Bush in 1970, has been using public forums to experiment with populist economic themes. At a recent appearance in Dallas, Bentsen denounced "an administration that is forceful and resourceful halfway around the world" while showing "little apparent concern for the millions of our own people who fall prey, every day, to recession, despair, ignorance and disease."
Former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert S. Strauss, a fellow Texan, acknowledges being part of discussions to build support for Bentsen. Although Strauss said he thought the odds were against Bentsen running, he said he found strong support for such a candidacy on Capitol Hill and among Democratic governors.
The Texas senator says he has "no plans" to seek the 1992 presidential nomination and a source close to him said that "if the Democrats are looking for a sacrificial lamb," who would simply provide some protection against a rout for Senate and House candidates, "I can tell you Lloyd Bentsen is not interested. He is not into resume-building."
New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D), for his part, sounded anything but defensive about his party. In an interview yesterday, he said that Bush's domestic failures stood in such sharp contrast to his success at war that "the logic here seems so clear to me: These people are no good at peace."
"The president was greeted as a hero. He should be. He earned that," Cuomo said. "But when he turned to the domestic program, he made it apparent that he was not going to deal with the problems. . . . You cannot stay at 91 percent in the polls by cheering yesterday's war."
Cuomo, who was quoted before the Persian Gulf War as calling for concessions of oil and water rights to Iraq -- he insists he was misunderstood -- contended that Democrats who voted for economic sanctions as an alternative to war will not be hurt by their votes. "Before you go to war, you should pursue every reasonable alternative," Cuomo said. "That is not called surrender. That is intelligence and civility and progress."
Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.), who cast such a vote and has apparently suffered political damage as a result, disagreed with Cuomo. "I don't think there is any doubt politically right now that those of us who felt economic sanctions should be given longer to work are not on the popular side of the issue," he said.
The vote in fact appears to have already badly wounded, if not killed outright, Nunn's presidential prospects. "I cannot visualize any circumstances under which I would run in 1992," Nunn told reporters in Boston. "Southerners don't like to make Sherman-like statements, but that is pretty close to one."
Cuomo's comments reflected a broad desire in the party to change the subject of American politics from foreign to domestic policy -- and as quickly as possible.
Jesse L. Jackson has already jumped on that bandwagon, traveling last weekend to Washington and Oregon in an attempt to negotiate peace between unionized lumber workers and environmentalists locked in a bitter dispute over saving old growth forests and the spotted owls that live there.
At a meeting in the Capitol yesterday, a group of Democratic strategists agreed that while the potential candidates sort themselves out, one of the party's priorities is "to engage Bush on education, drugs, crime and the other things he's talked about," said one Democrat who attended. "Dealing with domestic issues and legislation is the work of mere mortals, not of commanders in chief."
Staff writer David S. Broder and special correspondent Christopher B. Daly in Boston contributed to this report.