IT'S only February 1995, a year from the first primary in New Hampshire, and already the door to the White House has begun to shut in the face of Republican candidates.
To squeeze through that portal and still be around a year from now a candidate must be ready to dig up $20 million in campaign funds by the end of this year. That will be a crucial test on the way to raising $29 million altogether. When added to matching federal funds, the price tag on the White House should be about $44 million.
And there will be another prerequisite for candidates: An ability to endure two years of campaigning while the news media and your opponents look under the rug in every corner of your past for something with which to embarrass you.
Together, the money game and the loss of privacy make the prospect of running for president sound pretty unappealing. In fact, Republican Party strategist William Kristol recently suggested that ``You've got to be a little crazy'' to try it.
Last year former Education Secretary William Bennett, an intellectual godfather to many neoconservatives and an often-mentioned candidate, sized up the conditions and dropped out. More recently, two other Republicans with strong resumes joined him: Richard Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman and secretary of defense; and Jack Kemp, a former New York congressman and secretary of housing and urban development. Mr. Cheney's expertise was in foreign affairs, not likely to be the defining issue in 1996. Mr. Kemp, who carried the banner for innovation in the party in the 1980s, specifically cited the fund-raising hurdles in his decision to withdraw.
At least a dozen other names are still in play for the GOP nomination. But when New Hampshire Republicans go to the polls Feb. 20, 1996 (or even earlier, if needed, to remain the first primary), they may find only three or four names on the ballot.
The presidential campaign season continues to lengthen, to a point now where it is essentially perpetual. In 1992, Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas was able to start the primary season with little money and use a strong early showing in New Hampshire to unleash contributions; his long-shot candidacy kept up steam through several more primaries.
But the 1996 primary dates are packed together so early next year that they allow little room for candidates to scoop up fresh funds on the run. Those without enough cash up front will be forced to cash out early.
To get an accurate gauge on who will win the nomination, simply measure whose pile of money is highest by the end of this year. In recent campaigns, the top fund-raiser at the start of the presidential election year has won the nomination.
With that in mind, it seems certain that Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas will make the Republican short list. Mr. Dole sought recently to address the issue of his age - if elected, he would be one of the oldest presidents in American history - by saying he would consider serving only one term. He can meet the money test; and he may be able to use his years to his advantage, playing the role of a ``responsible adult'' from the World War II generation in contrast with the baby-boomer president.
Senator Gramm, meanwhile, leads the field as a fund-raiser: He reportedly has $5 million in hand and expects to pass the hat for another $2.5 million Feb. 23, the day he officially announces his candidacy.
Another former education secretary, Lamar Alexander, could join them. He's been crisscrossing the nation for a while now, advocating that Congress work only half the year - and take a 50 percent pay cut. So could Dan Quayle, who reportedly just hired a campaign manager. The former vice president stumped for a host of Republican candidates last year and could ask for their help in return. A bid from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania would test whether the GOP has a ``big tent'' that includes moderates who are pro-choice on abortion.
Finally, there are the GOP governors, who have played such a large role in the Republican revolution. William Weld of Massachusetts has coyly suggested that a Governor ``W'' will be in the race. But did he mean himself or Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a potent fund-raiser whose state's electoral votes will be crucial? Or maybe Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who gained attention with her reply to President Clinton's State of the Union address.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the embodiment of neoconservative Zeitgeist, would seem to be a logical front-runner.
But with Congress now setting the American agenda, rumor has it he doesn't want to be ``demoted'' to the Oval Office.