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Lining up for a quirky race

WHO knows what switch flashes ``Presidency!'' in a politician's psyche? For most Americans, and most politicians, that notion never comes. The candidates spend month on month explaining why they're running - and it all can remain as baffling and intriguing to outsiders at voting time as at the time of their announcement. In any event, the entrants for the 1988 race are coming more quickly now. Last Thursday, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois declared he would run. Then came Tennessee's Sen. Albert Gore. Today Colorado's Gary Hart is expected to announce. The three help round out the Democratic lineup.

Party professionals see Simon as filling the more traditional liberal slot in the Democratic spectrum. Simon distinguishes himself from the so-called ``new generation'' Democrats in the field. ``I am not a neo-anything,'' he says. ``I'm a Democrat.'' He is expected to absorb some of Massachusetts's Gov. Michael Dukakis's potential support in the Midwest.

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The Southern wing of the party might have best been represented in the primaries by Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who weighed a long-shot candidacy against his sure-fire influential role in the Senate and opted for the latter. Tennessee's Gore, however, articulate and from a long family political tradition, might fill the bill. And Arkansas's Gov. Bill Clinton may yet decide to run.

But neither Simon's entry nor any of the others wholly eases the deep concern of party pros about their selection process - that the resulting ticket could again reflect the party's activist elements more than the party as a whole or the general voting public.

Potential heavyweights like New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo and Georgia's Nunn apparently lack confidence in the reliability of a nomination system that takes such a heavy personal, financial, and logistical commitment and yet is so vulnerable to quirks. They, like White House chief of staff Howard Baker on the GOP side, may hope a deadlocked convention will turn to them.

Democrats have lost every presidential election since 1972 in a landslide except one - and in that, with Georgia's Jimmy Carter in 1976, they had a net loss outside the South.

The party's nomination reforms have resulted in an activist-dominated process with a front-end warp. The contest can offer some candidates a quick ride to media notoriety in the Iowa caucuses. Then comes the primary in New Hampshire, an independent-minded state not particularly representative of the Democratic Party which often does a rejectionist job on front-runners (Edmund Muskie, Walter Mondale). Proposals to hold a regional Northeast primary to balance out the impact of New Hampshire have fallen on deaf ears. This year a big primary cluster follows quickly in the South - a region that has seen a less impressive candidate response than hoped for, with Jesse Jackson possibly gaining the most, among black voters.

Half the delegates to the August nominating convention will be chosen by the end of March in a process that may be whipsawed by media reactions and results in primaries and caucuses not wholly representative of the party rank and file, not to mention the general public.

Simon is seen as taking an ``Iowa strategy.'' He hopes to do well in that neighboring state, where Missouri's Rep. Richard Gephardt already has been making a quick start toward upsetting front-runner Gary Hart, who is still laboring under his last campaign's debts and and a fuzzy image problem.

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The newest entries do not redress the problems the Democrats have dealt themselves with their selection process. But they should help broaden and deepen the candidate debates, which is no small service to the Democratic Party and the voting public.

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