FOR 1988, voters will have more information about the candidates now in the race, six in each party, than ever before in history. Newspapers are running profiles, analyses of candidates' positions on the issues; television is airing interviews, forums, debates. The media are generally nosing around in the background as the candidates scurry about the country like ants in search of the elusive scent of momentum. To end up uninformed about the 1988 contestants, voters would deliberately have to close eyes and ears.
We caught up with the Democrats the other afternoon in New Hampshire, to listen to their pitches firsthand. They addressed a tumultuous state Democratic Party convention, replete with placards and demonstrations on the St. Anselm College gymnasium floor, as if to intimate what the real thing would be like for their man next summer in Atlanta, the entire nation watching.
New Hampshire, the first primary, is important, but not necessarily all that important. It is one of a number of potentially decisive settings for a race that is, in any meaningful way, yet to be run.
We did observe that the one candidate who brought the whole house to its feet - his rivals' supporters as well as his own - was Jesse Jackson. Not that the Rev. Mr. Jackson wasn't positioning himself. (``I want to win in 1988,'' he said. ``But the Democrats must win.'') Still, Jackson most spoke from the heart about those whom the BMWs of material progress have left behind; he promised to go to the sites of national and world tension where a leader personally might make a difference. Now, Jackson persistently leads in the nationwide polls. He is the best-known Democrat running. And yet he is routinely accorded no chance of winning. His superior rhetorical gift evidently only adds to the ironies of his candidacy.
After Jackson, the oratorical ratings would go like this: Albert Gore (most resolutely presidential), Richard Gephardt (best prepared on issues), Bruce Babbitt (if there was a nice-guy award, he and his workers would be in the running), Michael Dukakis (who kept stressing that his campaign was nationwide, not just regional - presumably a point of limited interest to the New Hampshire politicos), and Paul Simon (a remarkably sustained singsong cadence).
Granted, supporters and voters respond to candidate qualities other than platform gifts - at times even despite a platform gift. Eisenhower and Truman were often at their worst in formal speeches; Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, superb orators, could not win the presidency.
It is still curious that seeing in person the hottest candidates at the moment, Mr. Simon No. 1 in Iowa and Mr. Dukakis in New Hampshire, may give little clue to what is happening in their campaigns. Simon, for example, is said to be attracting support from Lutherans, who have not had a presidential candidate of such promise.
Other current evidence, such as polls, may be equally misleading: Surveys that purportedly show Dukakis's strength dropping from the 50 percent to the 30 percent range in New Hampshire over a week or two cannot be measuring anything substantial. And what is to be said of the phantom candidates like Mario Cuomo who regularly outdraw those actually in the field?
On the Republican side, George Bush continues to lead Robert Dole by more than 2 to 1 nationwide, Pat Robertson by almost 6 to 1 in the Gallup poll. If Mr. Dole were to win in Iowa, Mr. Bush might quickly find his support the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep. In California, Bush does better than Dole among Republicans, but Dole does better against Democrats.
Again, voters genuinely interested in their leadership will have a chance to find out all they want to know about the 1988 contenders, if they take the trouble to read, follow TV, or drive a few miles to see them when they're in their own neck of the woods.