POLITICS used to take the summer off. Labor Day was the time to begin serious campaigning. But here it is, the July 4 weekend just past and eight months to go before the first presidential nomination delegates are decided, and the Democrats have already held their first full-scale debate, while Republican Pierre duPont has spent nearly 90 days campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. Given the low level of excitement about any of the declared candidates, it is unnecessary to warn against peaking too soon. The challenge instead is to husband and develop voter interest.
The Democrats who faced off in Houston last week certainly did not deserve to be derided as ``the Seven Dwarfs.'' They were personable and articulate, and showed collectively an impressive range of experience and specialization.
Granted, some party activists were disappointed that one or two figures did not break from the pack. Concerned Democrats foresee consequences of another four-year loss of the White House - not the least a further drought of Supreme Court appointment opportunities until at least 1993. Given the Reagan administration's Iran-contra problems and the Democrats' gains in congressional seats the past four years, Democrats feel 1988 should be their year. If they can't do it in '88, they may really have lost the presidency to the Republicans in a fundamental sense. And an ability to attract an emotional following is necessary for sustaining an effective campaign.
Another danger is to hand the campaigns over to technicians. During last week's debate, 87 Iowans were wired for their ``reactions'' - a technique used to market test commercials. In 1980 Ronald Reagan did more than test a market. He had an ideological constituency, complete with think tanks, regional cadres, and veterans of prior campaigns to help him. For '88 too, packaging will not be enough.