WASHINGTON — ONLY about half a year has passed since the last presidential election, but it's not too early for politicians with visions of the White House dancing before their eyes to start thinking about the 1996 race.
Two potential candidates - former Vice President Dan Quayle and the Rev. Pat Robertson, who ran in 1988 - are said by those who know them to be disinclined to mount a presidential bid in four years. The remaining Republican wannabes are quietly manuevering for position:
* Former Cabinet members Jack Kemp and William Bennett are both active in Empower America, a new GOP "shadow government," and on the lecture circuit.
* Richard Cheney, former Defense Secretary, is hanging his hat at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. He, too, is speaking around the country.
* Senate minority leader Bob Dole of Kansas has grabbed a high-profile role opposing President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic-stimulus package and other measures. Meanwhile, he has visited New Hampshire - site of the first presidential primary - twice in the past two weeks to address political meetings.
* Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas quietly has been sending out feelers to Ross Perot's camp to build support for his balanced-budget constitutional amendment.
* Rep. Robert Dornan of California, a fiery conservative nicknamed "B-1 Bob" for his support of the eponymous bomber, has been dropping broad hints to the press that he may throw his hat into the ring.
* Govs. Pete Wilson (California), William Weld (Massachusetts), and John Engler (Michigan) have been keeping up their national visibility by visiting Washington fairly regularly. But their chances are, in large measure, dependent on how their home state economies perform - and so far, they aren't doing very well.
* Patrick Buchanan, the only challenger to George Bush in the 1992 GOP primaries, has returned to his syndicated column and CNN's "Crossfire" program. He also has founded his own political organization, The American Cause.
The clear early favorites for the nomination are Messrs. Dole and Kemp. Dole now has the highest support of any Republican in opinion polls, but in the presidential race he may be handicapped by his advanced age (he will be 73 in 1996) and his hard-edged, cynical demeanor, which hurt him in the 1988 race.
Kemp has won the early support of many in the party who view him as the true inheritor of Ronald Reagan's mantle (George Bush, they believe, was only a pretender). "Kemp can forge together the different sides of the Republican coalition," says Eric Rittberg, a self-proclaimed libertarian from Tallahassee, Fla.
But key questions persist about Kemp, who has never held an elected office higher than congressman and whose last bid for the White House, in 1988, fizzled from the start. Many hard-core conservatives view him as a "big-government, big-spending establishment bureaucrat," in the words of John Hemenway, a Washington, D.C., political activist.
Among the other potential candidates, only Mr. Buchanan seems to generate much enthusiasm among the party faithful - in large part because of his quixotic run against Mr. Bush last year. But most analysts share the view of former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire who says, "Pat Buchanan can't be nominated for president of the United States" because of his extreme views.
That leaves the other possible candidates to jockey for position over the next four years. Like many hopefuls before them, they will visit New Hampshire and Iowa, make contacts with key fund-raisers, kibbitz with members of the fourth estate, and hope for the best.
At this stage, it's far too early to tell who will claw his way to the top. "Things are volatile and unpredictable right now," says William Kristol, one-time chief of staff to former Vice President Quayle. He suggests that the GOP race could see a wild-card entry, such as Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Colin Powell, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, or even Mr. Perot. "The safest prediction is that we'll be surprised by an awful lot that happens," Mr. Kristol says.