KNOWLEDGEABLE, experienced Washington journalists can get it wrong. They thought Ronald Reagan didn't have the stuff to become president and that Jimmy Carter wasn't forceful enough to be taken seriously as a presidential prospect. And four years ago this month they saw no one in the dwindling field of possible Democratic candidates who could beat President Bush: After all, Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt, and Lloyd Bentsen were pulling away from making the race.
These were the judgments of the veteran political writers who attended Monitor breakfasts.
These observers were also wrong when Bill Clinton met with the group in September of 1991: They gave the Arkansas governor high marks for intelligence and knowledge of the issues, but faulted him for throwing his personality around too much - for being much too eager to please. They didn't think Clinton would go far in his quest for the presidency.
They were wrong - as they had been with Reagan and Carter. But unlike George Bush, at this point in his presidency Clinton is not viewed as unbeatable. Yet, like four years ago, a dwindling field of prospective candidates is causing the pundits to conclude that the Republicans may end up with a less-than-strong nominee whom even a weakened Clinton will beat.
Certainly, several of the potential Republican heavyweights have dropped out even before they got into the race. The charismatic Jack Kemp is out. So is the articulate Richard Cheney. Then Dan Quayle, who might have gone far by championing family values, announced he wasn't going to run. And Newt Gingrich has said the presidency is not for him - at least not in 1996.
The remaining Republican candidates are regarded as less than promising. Bob Dole, long a star in the Senate, is viewed as somewhat of a retread, since he tried before, in 1980 and 1988, and failed. His performance as a vice-presidential candidate in 1976 seemed to hurt instead of help the Ford-Dole ticket.
Additionally, political observers view the rest of the GOP field - Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Arlen Specter, Richard Lugar, and Pat Buchanan, among others - as less than truly promising prospects.
But once again the savvy political writers could be wrong. A sweeter Bob Dole, avoiding the acid remarks that have in the past made him less than attractive to many voters, is now, according to polls, the leading candidate. He might, indeed, emerge as a strong (and winning) nominee.
Lamar Alexander could be the ``sleeper'' in the bunch. But this former governor and education secretary first needs to become known nationally.
Then there's Richard Lugar, a highly regarded expert on foreign affairs rated by many in the media as the brainiest politician in Washington. He could be a formidable opponent of Mr. Clinton. So could a couple of governors - Pete Wilson of California and William Weld of Massachusetts.