DEMOCRATS, sensing a new vulnerability in George Bush, are growing ebullient about their presidential prospects in 1992. ``There is a very, very good opportunity for a mainstream Democrat to beat George Bush,'' says David Eisenstadt of the Democratic Leadership Council. ``Republicans are rudderless and messageless.''
Robert Beckel, campaign manager for Walter Mondale in 1984, says: ``I think the Democrats are in the strongest position they have been in 14 years...What looked like an impossible race [against Mr. Bush] is looking a lot better to a lot of people.''
Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin says voter unhappiness ``obviously makes '92 a lot more attractive'' for his party. He expects ``much jockeying'' among potential Democratic candidates in the next few months.
No Democrat has announced his candidacy for the White House, but among those watched most closely are Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.
Several other Democrats might also be tempted, including Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia.
Tom Cronin, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says flatly: ``If [Governor] Cuomo wants it, this will be his year. He's the lead dog.''
Polls support that. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, in a recent survey of independent and Democratic voters, found Cuomo the first choice of 21 percent. Second was the Rev. Mr. Jackson, 17 percent. They were followed by Senator Bentsen, 14 percent; House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, 9 percent; Senator Nunn, 6 percent; Senator Gore, 5 percent, and Governor Wilder and Senator Kerrey, 2 percent each.
Former presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt of Arizona says Congressman Gephardt was the big winner in this year's budget battles on Capitol Hill. ``It enhances his [presidential] chances a great deal.''
But Mr. Babbitt also acknowledges the strength of Cuomo - ``for all the reasons we already know. He has a lot of soul. He evokes the emotional side of the Democratic Party.''
Fresh speculation about Democratic prospects began percolating several weeks ago as the president's popularity dipped. His approval rating fell from an unusually high 75 percent two months ago to 59 percent at the end of October.
The great Bush stumble, analysts say, came over tax policy. First, he reversed his ``no new taxes'' pledge. Then, he appeared to support tax policy that protected the wealthy.
Mr. Hart says Bush's problems are serious. At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Hart cited polls showing, for example, that after the recent budget battle, 59 percent of the American people believe Bush supports policies that favor the rich. A plurality of voters now say Bush doesn't really use the White House to fight for the average person.
Mr. Garin, who is Hart's associate, says: ``I don't think he [Bush] will ever be politically the same person he was before all of this [budget fight]''
Furthermore, Garin asserts that the political outlook for the White House could quickly get worse because of the onset of a recession. ``This is an administration that doesn't have an economic message,'' he says. ``There's no `stay the course,' there's no `change the course.' There's no course.''
Though Democrats salivate over '92, Dr. Cronin cautions that Bush - even with his reduced popularity - ranks about 15 points higher than Ronald Reagan did at this time in his administration.
``There's a temptation to exaggerate his weakness,'' Cronin says. ``But remember that Richard Nixon didn't look that good in 1970, and won a landslide in 1972. Reagan was in a recession in 1982, and won big in 1984. So at midterm, [presidents] look more vulnerable than they do soon afterwards.''
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, makes a similar point. He notes that Bush's approval rating is still well above Jimmy Carter's. A lot depends on the Middle East. If war breaks out, and many lives are lost, it could open the door to someone with passion, like Cuomo, he says. ``I think it is going to be hard to beat Bush unless you have some external circumstance to help.''
Furthermore, Democrats may be learning the wrong lesson from this year's events, warns William Schneider, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. ``They may conclude it is safe to talk about taxes and spending,'' he says. ``It isn't.''
Who will actually run?
Stephen Hess, a Brookings analyst, says Cuomo's seniority among governors will make it hard to resist.
Senator Bradley also will be under pressure to run, or ``after a while people will stop taking you seriously,'' Mr. Hess suggests.
Among Southerners, a Senator Nunn entry might dissuade others, such as Senator Robb, Governor Clinton, or Senator Gore.