THE Democrats could take the presidency in 1988. But, as so many observers in this city are saying in one way or another, ``Who do they have?'' Ronald Reagan, of course, will be out of office and out of very much political effectiveness by then -- though his campaigning could be of help to the GOP candidate. But the overpowering presence of Mr. Reagan on the ticket will be gone. Doubtless Reagan, even at his age, could win again, were it not for the constitutional restriction. He, like President Eisenhower, has become something of a legend in his own time.
So the Democratic politicians, looking ahead, are already breathing a sigh of relief. This time, they contend, they can win a presidency that has been eluding them (except for Jimmy Carter, who, many Democratic leaders feel, wasn't one of them) since Lyndon Johnson went out of office.
There's Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York standing in the wings. He's potentially formidable, certainly a persuasive speaker. And there's Sen. Edward Kennedy, ready and willing once again.
But both of these men express a philosophy that is closely identified with the old Democratic Party and one that is appreciated regionally (in the East and, particularly, the Northeast) more than in other sections. Both are seeking to broaden their views and their appeal. But they would probably find it difficult to convince the South and West (pivotal election areas now) that they would speak equally for those regions, too.
Gary Hart is back in contention. He does have the potential for reaching out beyond the Democratic Party to independent voters. But a lot of Democratic leaders doubt that Mr. Hart can shoot skyward again. As one Democratic politician put it: ``A lot of us feel that Hart has become a warmed-over commodity.'' The Colorado senator will probably work full time on his political revival. But his prospects at this time remain uncertain.
The last presidential primary chewed up some potential stars, foremost being John Glenn. If Glenn were running for president now -- unmarred by his defeat in the 1984 primaries -- he would look awfully good for 1988. But no one seems to be talking about Mr. Glenn today. The same goes for Ernest Hollings. Also, Reubin Askew and Alan Cranston. All of these might possess excellent prospects for 1988, were they not damaged by defeat.
Finally, there is Lee Iacocca. Is he interested in running? Perhaps. That's the first question. Is the Democratic Party interested in him? Probably not. Party politicians lean to their own, and Mr. Iacocca is an outsider. If he is interested in running, how does he get the nomination? Party people usually sway a large proportion of what is always a small number of primaries' voters. Indeed, the political climate these days works against the rise of an outsider -- even one with Iacocca's appeal.
All this is not to say that the presidency is not winnable for the Democrats three years from now. It is. But during the long regime of a popular president, the leaders of the opposite party suffer from lack of attention -- from the press and the public.
That is, such presidents hold almost all of the limelight. That was true during the long years Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. It happened again during President Dwight Eisenhower's term, and now during the Reagan years.
True, Walter Mondale got a considerable amount of attention in the 1984 campaign. So did Geraldine Ferraro. In the end, the publicity for a losing candidate acquires a negative tone. Mr. Mondale is on the sidelines. And Ms. Ferraro isn't talking about another try.
It is also true that Republicans who seek to follow Reagan will suffer from the comparison between themselves and this particularly well-liked President. For them, too, Reagan will be a difficult act to follow.
But these potential successors -- be they George Bush or Jack Kemp or Howard Baker or the two Doles, Robert and Elizabeth, or whoever -- will bask a bit in the Reagan glow. The eventual GOP nominee will doubtless have his blessing and his support.
Also, the Republican nominee will probably be someone who has been a part of Reagan's presidential effort. For example, Mr. Bush, as vice-president, has had favorable visibility. So has Mr. Kemp as a moving force in Reagan's economic programs. So has Mr. Baker, the former Senate leader. Ditto Mr. Dole as the Senate leader and Mrs. Dole as a member of the Reagan Cabinet.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.