ARE you going to win this thing by default, someone asked Paul E. Tsongas of Lowell, Mass.
He smiled bitterly. "It would not be worth winning that way," replied the only admitted Democratic candidate for president.
He had come to The Baltimore Sun to urge a serious view of his candidacy. Tsongas needs an opponent.
The Democratic Party, late in the presidential game, is failing the American people. It is refusing to produce a nominee for president whom the people would find presidential in stature in the event they wanted to toss George Bush out.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia declined, dashing hopes that the campaign might be funded by a doting angel.
Unreconstructed liberals are rallying round Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who keeps the faith. Centrists who insist the party needs the South are inspecting Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, immortalized as "the only politician to be a rising star in three decades."
Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, newest kid on the block, is testing the waters. Virginia limits its governor to one term, making every Virginia governor a candidate for president at least in the eyes of his mother, and guaranteeing that none will be a conscientious governor.
None of these people will oust Bush from the White House, however, under any circumstance that can now be imagined.
The polls identify only two figures in the Democratic Party whom the people consider to be the least bit presidential in size, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who peaked four years ago and may make his intentions known any day now.
As for the others, the Democratic Party would have to spend its treasure merely getting their names recognized. The people never heard of them.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Bush is a popular incumbent likely to beat any Democrat. The only reason for the Democrats to pretend otherwise is contingency planning - the game of "What If?"
What if the recession goes on and on, if fishing expeditions into old scandals produce a Bush thumbprint, if the 67-year-old Bush's health deteriorates, if the Bush Supreme Court alienates a majority of American women before November 1992, if glorious military adventures lead to awful political let-downs?
The odds are against any one of these eventualities coming to pass.
The Democratic Party owes the American people a credible alternative, just in case. That is its job.
Of the two men large enough, Jackson is opposed by almost as many people as favor him. That leaves Cuomo as the only Democrat with a chance to beat Bush. But if he was ever going to try it, why not in 1988, when his chance of winning was higher?
Cuomo is reflective. He published a diary of theological speculation, which is good reading. Cuomo is telegenic and articulate. His speeches are all that folks remember of past conventions. Cuomo is passionate about the needs of people, a Michael Dukakis with feelings.
Cuomo is smart. He runs a state larger and more complex than most countries. Above all, Cuomo is a verbal counterpuncher.
What the Democrats need tactically is someone who would thrive on the character-assassinating image campaign the Republicans will wage because it worked so well in 1988. Someone who would have made Bush choke on Willie Horton. Cuomo comes to mind.
But Cuomo has heavy baggage. He is a governor in a year when all states and governors look bad. He alone, rather than Clinton, Rockefeller, Wilder or Dukakis, might convince the people it is Bush's fault.
The electorate is as anti-New York as it is anti-Southern. He has a New York accent (which other New York governors in presidential contention - Nelson Rockefeller, Harriman, Dewey, F. Roosevelt, T. Roosevelt, Hughes and Cleveland - did not). The only New York governor who ran for president with Cuomo's accent also shared his Catholic faith. That was Alfred E. Smith, the 1928 loser.
Cuomo's father neglected to change his name. Mario observed the nation's deep anti-Italian fantasies during the vice-presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. And he witnessed a small stink in New York when his son, a lawyer, was publicized representing clients who did business with the state.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun. (Copyright, 1991)