TRUE, it's a long, long way to New Hampshire, but the recent additions and subtractions from the Republican presidential field have put the 1996 race in mind.
The assumption not too long ago was that President Clinton would be swept from office in the wake of the GOP's congressional triumph in '94. But that assumption has ebbed a bit.
The president has a long way to go to regain the momentum he lost during his first two years in office, when his campaign for health-care reform first surged, then fizzled. Recent polls have indicated, however, that the Republican agenda, as articulated and ramrodded by Speaker Gingrich, may have its own fizzle capacity. Americans generally support much of that agenda, but the details -- such as altering the school-lunch program and boosting the Pentagon's budget -- are causing some second thoughts.
The Democrats see an opening in this, if only a narrow one. Some hope their party's traditional line about helping the ''little guy'' still has an audience. We'll see.
Into this arena stride Republicans Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Richard Lugar, Arlen Specter -- and a few others, including, possibly, Gov. Pete Wilson of California. Among those who have chosen to step the other way are Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, and William Weld.
Front-running Senator Dole brings a wealth of Washington know-how -- critical to running things but often spurned at the grass roots. Senator Gramm champions conservative principles with a style aimed at corraling his party's activist wing. Governor Alexander is banking on an anti-Washington image and message. The latest arrival, Senator Lugar, can only hope that low-key expertise will distinguish him in a hyped political environment. Governor Wilson stands out by the sheer size of his state.
With the first vote a year off, the public may not be ready to give much ear to anything these gentlemen say. But when the reckoning starts in New Hampshire -- followed quickly by much bigger contests -- the public will be there. The drama of choosing a leader to launch the new century won't allow many bystanders.