White House hopefuls toe mark early for the '88 steeplechase

Planning to run for president in 1988? Then you'd better get started. Political insiders say a presidential race now requires so much money, and so much planning, that anyone not in the race by the beginning of 1987 may be too late. That's putting pressure on some undeclared, but likely, candidates, such as Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware.

The inside track for 1988 still belongs to two well-known figures, Vice-President George Bush for the Republicans and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado for the Democrats.

But political pros, including former Reagan adviser Ed Rollins, say they are watching several others in particular in case the front-runners fade.

On the Republican side, they include Senator Laxalt, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, Congressman Jack Kemp of New York, and former Sen. Howard H. Baker of Tennessee.

On the Democratic side, the people to watch besides Senator Hart are Senator Biden, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and former Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb.

Mr. Rollins, at a breakfast with reporters Tuesday, gave an assessment of the various candidates that is echoed by a number of other political experts.

Republicans:

George Bush. The next campaign will be about ``new ideas.'' Mr. Bush will have to prove that he has some, and that he can move the nation beyond the Reagan years. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, the GOP contest is probably over. A major problem: His support is soft.

Robert Dole. If Bush falters, Senator Dole will be there as the most likely nominee. He had a great 1986 as Senate majority leader, improving his image with party insiders.

But the GOP will lose its majority status in the Senate next year, and that takes away Dole's main pulpit.

Jack Kemp. He's made little progress in the past year. But he's the Republican who might best be able to hold together the Reagan coalition of young people, the religious right, and blue-collar ethnics. He also gets support from black and Jewish voters - unusual for a Republican.

Howard Baker. Loss of his Senate position has taken him out of the headlines. But he's zeroing in on Iowa and New Hampshire, and could surprise Dole.

Paul Laxalt. As a Republican close to Reagan, he could pick up strong support with party insiders. But his base in a small state hurts, as does Nevada's association with gambling and crime.

Democrats:

Gary Hart. Although deep in debt ($2.3 million) from his last campaign, he's well known by the public and far ahead in the polls. His major drawback could be that he is known as ``the ultimate loner.'' Even Senate colleagues remain cool to him.

Mario Cuomo. A resounding reelection victory in New York helps, but Governor Cuomo may not play well outside the Northeast. Rollins doubts Cuomo has the discipline to endure the long-term presidential process during which ``you are asked the same question 14,000 times.''

Joe Biden. The favorite of some Washington insiders, Senator Biden should be able to build an excellent organization, but he's little known by the public. His base in a small state also hurts.

Charles Robb. Former Governor Robb impressed Democrats with his performance in Virginia. His greatest difficulty will be getting the nomination in a party that is increasingly liberal.

Rollins and others say two unknowns for 1988 will be the Rev. Jesse Jackson (Democrat) and the Rev. Pat Robertson (Republican). Neither can get the nomination, insiders say, but each could get enough convention delegates to play the role of broker.

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