They're off!

It's still almost two years until the presidential election of 1984, but the first Democratic hopeful has already formally announced his candidacy. Whatever Sen. Alan Cranston's bid this week does for him, it reopens two broader questions.

* How can a free society both preserve the widest access to its electoral process and minimize the diversion of time, vigor, and resources from the business of governing to the business of campaigning?

No one could tell a Senator Cranston not to get off the mark early to try to catch up to the undeclared front-runners. As it is, Mr. Cranston waited a month or two longer than Jimmy Carter did in announcing for 1976.

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Will Mr. Cranston's valuable service in the Senate suffer? Or, indeed, will that of other senators, Republicans as well as Democrats, with eyes on '84? This is something they should know that voters will be watching as much as their appearances in the media. Legislative action on their convictions will speak louder than any political rhetoric.

And what about the nominating system that encourages early candidacies? The Democratic National Committee has tried to temper the situation by prohibiting any state primaries or caucuses before March 13, 1984. But there are exceptions for Iowa's famous early caucuses on Feb. 27 and New Hampshire's primary on March 6. Maine and Vermont are planning earlier dates anyway. Then comes New Hampshire's law requiring that its date be changed to be a week before any other primary.

It is farcical in a way. Yet the alternatives of mandated regional or national primaries have their shortcomings, too. Regional primaries could aggravate sectionalism. A national primary would be simple with less wear and tear on all concerned. But it would prevent candidates from modestly testing the wind, gaining momentum, and relying on personal campaigning while avoiding huge expenditures on national media.

As one scholarly study of the system concluded, for all the problems, the combination of primaries, conventions, and caucuses probably offers the best likelihood of satisfying the plethora of conflicting demands on the system. Anyway, sweeping change is unlikely.

It comes back to states refining their systems to ensure appropriate party and public roles - and to individuals using the systems as responsibly as possible.

One flaw that government has sought to address is the undue influence of money on elections. Pending legislation would go some way toward controlling this influence through such means as limiting the amounts received from political action committees. But recent reports have shown how the campaign laws already in place can be manipulated or evaded. Once more the issue of individual responsibility is paramount. Again, it is something for voters to evaluate.

* A second question raised by Senator Cranston's announcement is what his party has to offer in 1984. Some unannounced candidates sound a little the way moderate Republicans used to sound. To be sure, there are differences in that the Democrats by and large see government as having a strong positive role to play in national recovery. But the Democratic ''State of the Union,'' prepared before President Reagan's speech, actually overlapped it at some points.

Mr. Cranston jumps in with a resounding choice-not-an-echo by giving top priority to reducing the threat of nuclear war through combatting the arms race while pursuing the ''necessities of defense.'' It is a political risk when so much opposition to Mr. Reagan is focused on the economy. Does Mr. Cranston see the economy in good enough shape in 1984 so that the peace issue will be uppermost? Or does he subscribe to the view that, if the economy fails to recover sufficiently for political results, Mr. Reagan may seek a dramatic arms control achievement himself?

At any rate, by pledging to seek a mutual, verifiable nuclear freeze followed by arms reductions, Mr. Cranston places himself in direct contrast with the Reagan position now. Some other candidates hold similar antinuclear views. Mr. Cranston's step nudges them toward publicly joining him or letting voters know how they differ from him. Like Mr. Cranston, those others who are now in office themselves will be judged as much on what they do in their governmental capacities as on what they proclaim in the long, long months ahead.

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