IF pondering the Republican presidential ticket for 1996 seems like putting up Christmas decorations in September, think again.
Although the GOP nomination is wide open, with a long list of potential Republican opponents to the vulnerable President Clinton, the race this time will probably be over sooner than any previous nomination race in history.
Within a few weeks, while House and Senate Republicans are still in the middle of working their ``Contract With America'' through Congress, the field of candidates will begin to set formally.
The bad news for Republicans is that some party strategists expect the pressures of serious campaigns for the nomination to begin straining party unity almost immediately. The advantage is that the party is likely to unify around a candidate by early next year.
The fast-forward character of the campaigns this year comes from the creeping forward of the primary calendar.
The big move this round is California, which is moving from near the end of the 1996 primary season in early June to late March.
But most of the South has already bunched its primaries into a Super Tuesday in early March. So once Californians have voted, fully 70 percent of delegates will have been chosen.
The rule of thumb this year is that any candidate who has not raised $20 million by next January can forget it.
AFTER that, even candidates who raise enough money would not have time to spend it organizing support in the big, early-voting states.
Even in the past, the candidates with the most cash on hand on January 1 of the election year win the nomination in both parties, says Republican campaign consultant Bill Greener. This year, that early cash will be more significant than ever.
The list of candidates who may be able to raise that much money that soon is not long. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, as Senate majority leader, tops the list. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and California Gov. Pete Wilson are on it. Former Tennessee Governor and US Education Secretary Lamar Alexander may be in that group as well.
The only two Republicans that have unequivocally decided to run are Senator Gramm and Mr. Alexander.
Mr. Gramm won a straw poll at a Louisiana state Republican convention over the past weekend, and he is favored to win one later this month in Arizona. Though purely symbolic, these straw polls are early signals of an effective campaign. Gramm has already shifted $5 million from his Senate war chest to his presidential campaign, and he plans a $2.5 million fundraiser for the eve of formally announcing his candidacy February 24.
Gramm is unleashing what University of California, Irvine, political scientist Martin Wattenberg calls a `blitzkrieg strategy'' to overwhelm his competition early. With a lot of money, a visible position in the US Senate, and a base in the early-voting South, says Professor Wattenberg, ``it's possible Gramm could have this wrapped up very soon.''
The frontrunner going into this nomination race remains Bob Dole, even though he has not indicated whether he will run. With two presidential races behind him and as leader of the Senate, he has by far the highest name recognition of any potential candidate. He can probably enter later than other candidates and still be viable.
Mr. Alexander is a dark horse going in. But he has been traveling the country, holding regular ``neighborhood'' meetings with Republicans over a satellite TV. His message to cut pay and staff in Congress while sending members home for six months of the year may be awkward now that his own party runs Congress. Alexander plans to announce his candidacy at the end of February and to raise $20 million by the end of the year. He has two prominent fundraisers on his team.
Dick Cheney, the popular former Defense Secretary during the Gulf War, announced last week he will not run. Jack Kemp, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary as well as a leading inspiration for House conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, has not shown any serious interest in running and reportedly may bow out. William Bennett, former drug czar and education secretary and author of the ``Book of Virtues,'' pulled out months ago.
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan is exploring another run, as is moderate Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Another often-mentioned governor with presidential potential is William Weld of Massachusetts.
The front-loaded calendar this year offers a special advantage to Pete Wilson, coming off a dramatic reelection win in November. Mr. Wilson has already shown himself to be a big-league fundraiser. But his weakness may be that he is too liberal to make a strong showing in the South. Nor he has he shown any strong interest yet in making a presidential run.
Two wild cards: House Speaker Newt Gingrich - if he and his fellow House Republicans became persuaded that their agenda can best be moved from the White House - could conceivably enter the race. But moving so early in his term is consicered unlikely.
The other wild card is probably the most popular leader in America, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. Powell is presumed to be Republican, and he beats anyone of either party in presidential preference polls. But he has also never had to take a public stance on any controversial issue. And should he run, it might well be as an independent - skipping the primary process.