THE 1988 presidential year is far away. Yet, William H. Gray III is such an impressive person -- so articulate, so knowledgeable, so witty -- that it is impossible not to think of the next run for the White House without wondering whether he just might be one of the leading contenders. At the moment, Congressman Gray (D) of Pennsylvania, as House Budget Committee chairman, is one of the chief shapers of the emerging anti-deficit package. Indeed, he is having as much to say as anyone else -- including Speaker Thomas O'Neill, Senate majority leader Robert Dole, and President Reagan -- on where the spending cuts will come and how much they will be.
Already another and much better known black politician, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, appears to be poising himself for another try at the presidency. In fact, the prospect that the Rev. Mr. Jackson will again be bidding for the nomination -- and possibly bringing about another split among Democrats -- is causing shivers among Democratic chieftains.
There seems little likelihood the party will find Jackson acceptable. Powerful Jewish elements felt he was tilting toward Arab interests in the Mideast. Furthermore, there was the charge that some of his remarks in 1984 (and some of the people he associated with) indicated he was anti-Semitic, something he vehemently denied.
But the Democrats know that Jackson will have to be dealt with. But how? In 1984, Jackson came close to retreating to his tent and sulking. First, of course, he wanted the No. 1 slot on the ticket. Then he wanted No. 2. And when he became convinced that he would get neither of these, he moved to backing Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles for the vice-presidential spot.
Unless a whole new and (in the eyes of his critics) politically purged Jesse Jackson emerges, his prospects for being on the slate in '88 appear nonexistent. But the party leaders may find it impossible to renege on their implicit promise to turn to a black.
And while the No. 1 Democratic slating will probably go to a white, it may well be that the No. 2 spot will be filled by a prominent black, other than Jackson. Perhaps it will be Mr. Bradley, a very impressive leader, who, however, may be regarded as too old.
Beyond Bradley there are a number of blacks around the country who are quite attractive -- Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta and Assemblyman Willy Brown of California among them -- and who may be making themselves available for a presidential opportunity in the next year or two.
But many observers here who watch him on a day-to-day basis are asking, ``Why not Bill Gray?'' Why not, indeed?
Mr. Gray's record as a four-term congressman is sparkling. On arrival and as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he sponsored the only new program offered by a freshman and passed by the Congress in this century. This legislation established the African Development Foundation to deliver US aid goods to African villages.
In 1980, Congress adopted Gray's amendments to increase the numbers of minority and women officers in the Foreign Service. Most recently, Gray sponsored legislation to ban new investments by US companies in South Africa.
Mr. Gray, too, is a minister, with a master's in theology from Princeton Theological School in 1970. And he has been the senior minister at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia since 1972.
As might be expected, he is not fully appreciative of the President -- not finding the substance in Mr. Reagan that he would like. But looking back over the last few presidential administrations, he hails Reagan's ability to communicate. ``Finally,'' he says, with a twinkle in his eye, ``we have a President who can preach.''
Would Gray have any interest in preaching over at the White House? a reporter asked laughingly.
``Sure,'' he responded, ``I'd be glad to be over there to preach to them.''
But he denied -- not adamantly -- that he aspired to be a ``resident preacher.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.