Where are the 'hotshots' of yesteryear?

By the midpoint of a president's term, the ''out'' party usually parades one or more possible presidential candidates from out of the governors' ranks. But not this year.

Jay Rockefeller is a potential candidate. So is Jerry Brown. And there are doubtless several other Democratic governors who harbor presidential aspirations.

But for some unknown reason the same Democrats who are unable yet to come up with a clear alternative to President Reagan's domestic program are equally at a loss to find a governor who looks as if he could mount an effective challenge for the presidency.

Brown is fighting for his political life in a race for the US Senate in California. And Rockefeller's spending spree in his last election somehow has dimmed his presidential prospects. Reubin Askew, former governor of Florida, is on hand, working the territory -- speaking to governors and other political activists and talking up his own presidential aspirations. But he certainly is not the object of the cameras. His campaign has yet to catch fire.

The Democrats do have some stars in the gubernatorial ranks. Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt is one. He is regarded by many colleagues as the brightest among the Democratic governors -- just as Vermont's Richard Snelling, a Republican, receives the same kind of rating from those governors who have worked closely with him here.

John Brown Jr., Kentucky's personable governor, certainly has charisma. But the appraisal from fellow governors is that Brown has reached his political peak , that the presidency is above his capabilities. But Jimmy Carter's cohorts among the governors never thought he would go far, and nobody would say this was an insightful forecast.

Gov. Hugh Carey of New York was once regarded as a good presidential prospect. Carey didn't show up for this conference, and nobody seemed to notice his absence.

The Republicans were equally unable to spotlight some luminary governors who could be alternatives to President Reagan should he decide not to run again.

Governor Snelling, as chairman of the National Governors Association, drew some attention here. His drive to put forward the governors' own ''new federalism'' plan, one that would be competitive with the President's initiative , gave him a central role here. But presidential timber? No one seemed to be talking of Snelling in that light.

Big Jim Thompson, Illinois governor, was being regarded four years ago as a possible presidential candidate. He caused a bit of a flurry at the governors conference at that time. But not today. Thompson is in a fierce reelection struggle with Adlai Stevenson III and is behind Stevenson some 11 points in the polls. The talk here was on whether Thompson would be able to remain on in Springfield.

In fact, out of the Thompson race could emerge a potent dark horse for the Democratic presidential nomination: Adlai Stevenson. By next year's governors meeting, Mr. Stevenson just might be the focus of attention, carrying his famous name into a credible effort to wrest the nomination from the two Democrats who seem to have a stranglehold on it at the moment: Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.

Two particularly attractive Republican governors, Robert Ray of Iowa and William Milliken of Michigan, appear to be on their way out as public figures. Yet it wasn't too long ago that both men were being heralded at conferences such as this as strong candidates for the presidency.

Where, in short, are the presidential ''hotshots'' of yesteryear? The Tom Deweys, the Nelson Rockefellers, the William Scrantons, the George Romneys, and the Ronald Reagans who used to give a shine to these conferences simply by being in attendance? Where, too, are the George Wallaces and Lester Maddoxes who added controversy if not luster to the governors' annual pow-wow?

Without any highly visible presidential hopefuls on the scene -- and with neither the President nor the vice-president here -- the comment of one observer seems appropriate: ''The governors are working hard and getting a lot done. But as a show, it is dull, dull, dull.''

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