Late bloomers

NO presidential campaign year is like any other. And 1988 is no exception to this rule. The '88 campaign has seen the largest cadres of early entrants in both parties. And it is turning out the greatest number of televised encounters or debates.

Now, we have voiced deep misgivings about TV's tendency to absorb the political process. It often twists it into something concerned about image over substance. When campaign settings become stage sets, what is carried on the tube becomes make-believe: How can such a campaign be said to reach the people?

But television has its assets, too, and these should not be overlooked in 1988. The great abundance of TV encounters makes it possible for candidates to learn on the road, to spread any disappointing performances over a longer season and hope for a hot streak. There are already 11 televised debates planned for the Democrats between now and early next year, and at least five for the Republican candidates. The debates have come earlier, and there are more of them. Paul Simon's campaign staff reports receiving 34 requests for joint appearances.

Paul Tully, field director of the Michael Dukakis campaign, told the Boston Globe: ``Politics used to be coalition building, institutional and organizational. With the exception of the small early voting states, we're in an age where the prime transaction now is between the candidate and the voter through the television set, with nothing in between.'' The proliferation of debates does offer ``a free pass for late starters,'' Mr. Tully points out.

Well into the fall, TV will offer the Sam Nunns (still thinking about it), the Mario Cuomos (the definitely-not-running Mr. Cuomo leads the declared-candidate pack in California), the Bill Bradleys (his intuition says no), and the Pat Schroeders (still counting her money) the chance to make up a lot of ground awfully quickly.

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