FINALLY, it begins. Early next Tuesday, former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas launches his Democratic campaign for the White House, and the nation's presidential race officially gets under way. First stops for Mr. Tsongas: New Hampshire and Iowa.
By summer, party insiders predict Tsongas will be joined on the campaign trail by two or three other Democrats. Among the likely entrants will be Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, and perhaps - just perhaps - Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.
Senator Gore, who ran for the White House in 1988, could be the first ``big name'' out of the blocks this time. Unlike most Democrats, Gore backed the popular war against Iraq, and that strengthens his prospects.
Democrats know 1992 will be the most challenging election for their party in modern times. George Bush, uplifted by record-breaking wartime popularity, looks more formidable today than Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.
Even with an intimidating Republican in the Oval Office, however, the Democratic presidential nomination remains a coveted jewel of American politics. As political analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution points out, there are vast amounts of space in newspapers reserved for whomever the Democrats select.
``Some people decide that it's worth their time, just because they like running for president, or they have some ideas they want to expose, or they want to get in position for ,'' Mr. Hess says. ``Once they do that, they will try to convince themselves that they could win.''
Democratic leaders say they begin the '92 campaign with no illusions. But former party chairman Robert Strauss puts a positive spin on the coming year:
``The political landscape, while certainly not a happy one for the Democrats today, isn't as depressing as I think some would make it. Am I pleased with it? Of course I'm not happy. But not discouraged. A lot can happen.''
The immediate problem for some Democratic hopefuls will be a shortage of campaign funds. ``Fund-raising is tough,'' says Mark Warner, treasurer of an exploratory committee set up for Governor Wilder. President Bush's strength ``obviously makes it harder to raise money.''
Senator McGovern, the party's 1972 nominee, has delayed his decision until May 23 for financial reasons. Unless he can raise enough cash to qualify for federal matching funds, there will be no McGovern campaign, he says.
``You can't function in politics any more without money,'' McGovern says.
As the campaign begins, Tsongas and Wilder will be ``the spring story,'' Hess says. They will generate excitement by entering early but will soon be overwhelmed by the ``top tier'' of candidates, Hess predicts.
By next fall, most of the money, manpower, and enthusiasm are expected to gravitate toward a small group that could eventually include Governor Cuomo, Senator Gore, House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.
Cuomo remains the greatest enigma. ``The governor has no plans to run for president, and he has no plans to make plans,'' says a Cuomo aide. But few buy that.
``It's my instinct that he might run this time,'' says Lee Miringoff, a pollster at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Dr. Miringoff adds: ``One never knows whether he's running or not, but certainly he remains very attentive to his national image.''
Strauss, sounding upbeat about Cuomo's prospects, also suggests the governor will run.
``We need a ... tough-looking, middle-America-looking, progressive candidate. The truth of the matter is, Mario Cuomo looks like a fellow ought to look. He looks ... like he ought to be playing first base for somebody, or like he'd just gone six rounds. He looks tough, he sounds tough, and he acts tough,'' Strauss says.
Senator Bentsen also seems interested. Strauss, a fellow Texan, suggests Bentsen might want it, but only without a big fight. But another friend, who asked not to be named, says Bentsen knows what he's getting into.
``He is considering a race,'' the friend says. ``He is not unrealistic enough to think you won't have hotly competitive primaries.''
The senator's main concern is timing, the friend says. ``He knows that the minute he starts seriously exploring a race, his effectiveness as chairman of the finance committee will be reduced. So he is not going to do anything like that prematurely.''
Mr. Gephardt also is biding his time. ``I'm not running. I'm busy being a majority leader,'' he says. But insiders say he is keenly interested in moving his office to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.