DAN QUAYLE will be going back to Indiana. Bob Dole is digging into his job as Senate minority leader. Patrick Buchanan may launch a conservative foundation. Jack Kemp's plans for the future are still wide open.
It's 206 weeks until the next presidential election - enough time to earn a college degree - but already eyes are turning to Vice President Quayle, Senator Dole, Mr. Buchanan, and Housing Secretary Kemp, four possible Republican front-runners for 1996.
Out of office for the first time in 12 years, Republicans are expecting a free-for-all in '96, with a wide range of possible candidates, from a conservative Christian entry like the Rev. Pat Robertson to a pro-choice alternative like Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts.
The list of potential GOP contenders reads like a "Who's Who" of Republican politics. There's Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, former Education Secretary William Bennett, White House chief of staff James Baker III, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
Other possibilities include Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, California Gov. Pete Wilson, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and former Gov. Pierre (Pete) du Pont IV of Delaware.
To that lengthy list, Governor du Pont adds: "And probably three we haven't thought of yet."
Although it's early, Republican politicians are already looking at the likely lineup because they will soon be selecting a new national party chairman. Insiders want someone who will remain neutral between all potential rivals.
Dole, who moved quickly to become the GOP's leading spokesman after President Bush's defeat, puts it this way: "I'm going to be very certain we get a chairman ... who has no ties to any candidate for '96."
At least two of the possible presidential candidates also are being mentioned for the chairman's post, which is now held by Richard Bond. They are Secretary Cheney and du Pont. Cheney is reportedly a favorite of House minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois.
Du Pont says the party chair "must not be a candidate for the presidential nomination." If he becomes chairman, du Pont promises he would "absolutely" be out of White House contention.
All this scrambling for position in 1996 would be much different if President Bush had won the election. Quayle, as vice president, would have been the acknowledged front-runner, with everyone else playing catch-up.
Quayle remains an important factor, even in defeat. But Floyd Brown, president of Citizens United, a conservative lobbying group, says Kemp must now be considered the man-to-beat because of his popularity with both conservative and moderate Republicans.
Mr. Brown, who worked for the Dole campaign in 1988, adds that the Kansas senator should not be counted out either. Like Kemp, Dole also can bridge the party's ideological divides.
Looking four years hence, there is considerable speculation about Quayle, whose plans remain elusive. Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says Quayle would be wise to focus on 2000, not 1996.
Dr. Sabato explains: "If he wants to be the next Walter Mondale, he could run in '96. But if he prefers to be Richard Nixon [who won the White House after an eight-year hiatus], 2000 might be his year."
Craig Shirley, a conservative political consultant, concurs: "I think it would be a mistake for Quayle to run in '96. He should go back to Indiana, run for governor, do interesting things with education and privatization, and finish the rehabilitation [of his image] that began this year."
Another key player could be Senator Gramm, who delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention.
Brent Bozell III, executive director of the Conservative Victory Committee, says Gramm has a long way to go in developing a national political base, however. "Phil Gramm thinks he has a base, but he doesn't. It's [only] a money base."
Mr. Bozell says Gramm may have been hurt by his earlier support for "the disastrous budget deal" in which Bush accepted higher taxes.
Analysts offer these thoughts on other possible candidates:
* Tom Kean. Now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., the former governor is also mentioned as a likely US education secretary. "Kean ... always keeps his options open," says Stephen Salmore, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
* James Baker. He may actually be helped by the president's defeat, because it lowers Quayle's profile.
* Patrick Buchanan. Bush's nemesis in the '92 primaries proved he could raise money and votes, but his old calling - journalism - also appeals to him, friends say.
* Pat Robertson. The minister/broadcaster/businessman has the strongest grass-roots base of all. His greatest need: finding a way to attract moderate voters.