The next president

EVENTS have hardly made President Reagan's week. After the flap over West Germany and Nicaragua, a weekend at Camp David with Nancy and Lucky the dog must look pretty good. That the President has stumbled this early in his new term does not mean very much. There are lots of big issues yet to be fought, won, or lost, including budget cutting, tax reform, and arms control. I doubt that we have seen the eclipse of Ronald Reagan's magic with the voters.

The press has a notoriously short attention span, however, and with only 1,365 days to go till Inauguration Day in 1989, we are beginning to see a flurry of ``who's-the-next-president?'' stories.

Many of us who feel that American presidential election campaigns are entirely too long, and too costly, deplore all this -- and then join the crowd. It is folly, of course, to speculate this early. In the wise, if often convoluted, words of Casey Stengel, ``Don't never predict nothin', especially the future.''

So this is not a prediction, merely a compilation of the current lack of wisdom about who is running.

On the Republican side, Vice-President George Bush heads the list. He has coped well with the anonymity to which we consign our vice-presidents. Traditionally suspect with the conservatives, who see him as a kind of Connecticut Yankee at the court of King Ronald, he has nevertheless proved quietly loyal to the President and has earned Mr. Reagan's trust. He has cheerfully undertaken a series of mundane missions, especially representing the President at funerals of foreign leaders. (``You die, I fly'' is the irreverent motto staff members and reporters on his plane have coined for him.)

Now he has reorganized his staff, he is out cultivating support groups, he is testing the issues he can develop for himself, and, whether or not he's wearing Brooks Brothers belts and wristwatch straps, is seeking to shed the effete Eastern image the conservatives have stuck him with.

Breathing down his neck is Jack Kemp, the conservative with charm and the Jack Kennedy haircut.

The consensus of the media mavens is that a rousing performance by Ronald Reagan in his second term helps George Bush's candidacy; if Reagan slips, Kemp stands to gain.

Lower in the lineup are Sen. Robert Dole and former Sen. Howard Baker. The experts think that, at this stage, Dole is in trouble because he has too much to do, and Baker is in trouble because he has too little to do. Dole is bogged down with the Senate majority leadership, a demanding task in this administration's second term. It restricts his opportunity for campaign and maneuver. AlthoughSenator Baker is out there plugging USA Today, the flagship of the Gannett Company, of which he is a director, since he resigned from the Senate he lacks the exposure that many think is necessary for a presidential run.

Then there is Jeane Kirkpatrick, the dragon lady of Democratic politics, who has become the darling of Republican conservatives. She disclaims presidential ambitions, but many think that she might yet do a Geraldine Ferraro and emerge on the ticket as a vice-presidential running mate.

The Democrats are even tougher to read, for how can one talk about an heir apparent in a party that has no incumbent?

Sen. Gary Hart, who seeks to assume John F. Kennedy's political legacy, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, who assumes the fraternal legacy of his brother, are high on the list. Senator Kennedy has recently been staking out a more middle-of-the-road position and looks as if he is seriously weighing the odds as a contender. Senator Hart is rated a near-certainty as a candidate.

Then there is Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who plays an audience like an angler luring the trout to the fly. He likes traditional liberalism; after all, he says, it worked for Ronald Reagan, who ``never mentioned Eisenhower, Ford, or Nixon in his campaign, but quoted only Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy,'' so why change it?

Sens. Joseph Biden and Bill Bradley are sometimes added to the Democratic list, but way down.

So much for this nonprediction of the noncandidates in a presidential election campaign that hasn't yet started.

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