Jesse Jackson has often referred to himself as the ``front-runner'' in the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. While some early readings taken after Gary Hart's surprising declaration that he is again a candidate suggest that the situation may have changed, up to Dec. 15, polls provided some support for Mr. Jackson's claim. Rank-and-file Democrats consistently mentioned him more often than anyone else when asked whom among the declared candidates they wanted their party to nominate. In polls from September through mid-December, about 20 percent of Democrats made Jackson their first choice - five to 10 percentage points more on average than chose his closest rival.
Front-runner status requires more than this, however. To earn it, a candidate must demonstrate as well that his base of public support gives him a real chance to be nominated for the presidency and then elected to it. By this latter measure, Jackson still has not made it to the front ranks.
Two of the declared candidates are cited by voters more often than any others as people whom they would definitely not consider supporting - Jackson on the Democratic side and Pat Robertson among Republicans. As the accompanying chart shows, large majorities profess a lack of confidence in Jackson's capacity to be a good president.
Jackson trails both George Bush and Robert Dole in trial heats by margins of 2 to 1.
Jackson is still much better known than the other Democratic candidates, with the exception of Mr. Hart. His level of recognition is similar to Mr. Bush's. But a large plurality of those who say they know something about Jackson view his candidacy unfavorably.
Democrats such as Michael Dukakis and Mario Cuomo (the latter still is often mentioned as a possible nominee, though he is a declared noncandidate) also are not ranked favorably for the presidency by high proportions of voters. Their task seems far more manageable than Jackson's, however, since they need only attract voters who don't yet know much about them. Now in his second run for the presidency, Jackson would have to convert large numbers of people who have formed an unfavorable opinion on his candidacy.
Seeking to become the first black American president, Jackson has a strong base of support among black voters. He still has not convinced more than a small minority in the rest of the electorate that he is well qualified for the presidency. Still, he has made enormous strides in gaining recognition as an able and attractive leader. He is viewed unfavorably as a presidential candidate, but otherwise favorably as a political figure. Across racial lines, he is seen as caring about the needs of ordinary citizens.
How important is race as a barrier to the presidential recognition that Jackson seeks? Polls don't carry us far toward an answer. By a slight majority, Americans say they don't think the country is ready to elect ``a qualified black president.'' By an overwhelming 4-to-1 margin, however, they declare themselves personally ready to back a qualified black for the office.
The public doesn't believe racial barriers have disappeared, but it no longer finds them overwhelming. A larger proportion now thinks the country is ready to elect as president a black man than it is a white woman. The public thinks that Jackson encounters some biased treatment in the news media - but not more than many other candidates face.
If we don't know precisely how much of an impediment race is to Jackson's breaking out of his presidential base in the black community, we do know that Americans in general set higher and qualitatively different standards for the presidency than for other posts. Jackson is one of a multitude of candidates viewed favorably in other contexts but found wanting for the nation's highest office.
Everett C. Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.