WASHINGTON — It's 2-1/2 years before the next presidential election, and already Iowa and New Hampshire are swarming with White House wannabes.
All are men, almost all are white. Most of the faces are reruns from the last three races. The public, so far, is yawning.
The time is ripe, some pundits suggest, for a qualified woman with a vision for the country to step forward and make the run. Even if she didn't win her party's nomination, the thinking goes, she would add a female face to an overwhelmingly male club, expanding the public's notion of who could run for president and subtly encouraging other women to jump in.
Historian Robert Dallek sees a growing public cynicism about men as president, spurred by the allegations of sexual misdeeds by President Clinton but fueled by some of his predecessors.
"There is a certain leeriness that has been generated by this scandal, as well as the endless allegations about President Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson also having been a womanizer," says Professor Dallek, author of a new Johnson biography.
"The country might be much more comfortable having a woman. That's not because people are naive enough to think that women don't sin, but generally, I think they feel that women would be much less prone to this kind of temptation than a man [would be]."
Mr. Clinton's high job approval ratings are a reflection of the economy, says Dallek, not a sign of forgiveness.
Republican pollster Linda Divall thinks we'll see a female president in the next 10 to 20 years. But she and other observers of women in politics see the Clinton sex scandal only as a possible background factor in any woman's decision to run, not a prime motivator.
Running for president is a complicated business. You need a fund-raising base, an electoral base, and a compelling, explainable reason for doing it - a vision or a set of issues that click with voters. You also have to be willing to travel across the country for two or three years before the election and withstand harsh scrutiny of your life.
"I suspect no woman would campaign around [the sex issue]," says Laura Liswood, executive director of the Council of Women World Leaders at Harvard University. "It would just have to be symbolically assumed."
But because voters tend to react to the last presidency when they vote, she says, a woman candidate might get some benefit from running to replace Clinton.
A more important factor paving the way for a woman president may be the end of the cold war. It used to be that presidential candidates had to have military service on their resumes to pass muster - with the important exception of President Reagan, who overcame his lack of service with his charisma and strong anticommunism. Now, military service is optional.
In addition, the nation's agenda has changed. The so-called "women's issues" - children and families and education - are now "at the top of our lists," says former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who herself almost ran for president during the 1980s.
"I remember saying during the cold war we're not going to have a woman president until we have a woman secretary of defense. Now, we may have a woman running for president out of a whole different ballpark, maybe a woman who's run a major corporation."
So who should, or would, run? For the Republicans, Elizabeth Dole's name always comes up first. She has a golden rsum - head of the American Red Cross, former Cabinet secretary - and a national image. Other names: Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, a possible future Speaker of the House.
Democrats tend to mention Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro - a former New York congresswoman who ran for vice president in 1984 - and Ann Richards, former governor of Texas. If Rep. Jane Harman wins the governorship of California, that puts her on the mention list.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could have been on the list as well, except she's not qualified: She wasn't born in America. Still, says Ms. Liswood of Harvard, "the Madeleine Albright effect is the strongest woman we have going for us - a woman in one of the most powerful positions in government."
Independent pollster John Zogby has a hunch that one or both parties may put a woman on the ticket in 2000. Last November, he polled a mock presidential race pitting a GOP ticket of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole against Vice President Gore and Senator Feinstein. Bush-Dole got 42.5 percent vs. 32.5 percent for Gore-Feinstein.
If nothing else, Mr. Zogby's exercise put out another hint that 2000 might be a woman's year, albeit a vice-presidential one. Some political observers express frustration that such talk still centers on the No. 2 spot on the ticket. But in historian Dallek's view, because it's unprecedented, and the US is in some ways conservative, this is a way Americans might "ease ourselves into it."
But if a dynamic candidate, who happens to be a woman, bursts onto the scene - say, a female version of Colin Powell or an American Margaret Thatcher - there's no reason she couldn't go for the presidency, Dallek says.
What America's future women presidents need first, though, is to build their rsums. That means winning important stepping stone-offices. In Congress, both houses have record numbers of women - nine out of 100 senators and 55 out of 435 House members - but those numbers remain low. Governorships lately have been even better training grounds for presidents, but only three out of 50 governors are women.