The assumption has been, of course, that the Democratic presidential nomination in '92 is valueless. President Bush will be invulnerable, even running again with his dim vice president, so what is needed is the sort of candidate whose resume will be enhanced by a worthy loss.

Maybe it will work out that way. The dearth of active Democratic candidacies would seem to argue that view. But it isn't so farfetched to see quite a different outcome. First, let's look at the idea that the Republicans cannot be beaten:Bush's masterful handling of our victorious war makes him invulnerable, the reasoning has been. But the smart missiles already seem long ago, and now it is the starving Kurdish babies that are our image of the war. By the time we get to vote, that too will have receded.

What will be left, perhaps, is a sense that little was actually solved by the war. Saddam Hussein is still in power. So is just about everybody else who was in power before the war. Our friends are as difficult as ever, and our enemies as despicable, so what was it all about? It is not possible to predict what force the war will have in the minds of voters, but it is by no means certain it will be a dominantly favorable issue for Bush.

The party in power never allows a recession in an election year. Well, the Republicans would surely like to have that one be so, but what with squabbling among the nabobs who run monetary policy, and very limited options because most of the cards have already been played over the past 10 years, economic health may be beyond their control.

Make no mistake: The U.S. economy is crippled, and it's not just no-account poor people who know it. Anybody trying to get a job knows it, and anybody running a business knows it. If monetary policy intended to stimulate the economy has the effect of igniting inflation, this recession could be a powerful negative for the GOP.

The federal deficit, which continues to spiral under the "fiscally conservative" Republicans, will be important to some voters.

Finally, for all the growing registration of voters as Republicans across the country, and the president's popularity in current polls, the GOP remains in the public mind the party of the rich and the would-be rich. That is an image the Democrats could exploit.

If the Democrats continue to be a federation of splinter and minority groups, attempting in their fractious way to recreate Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, their nominee will simply be the next in a series of foreordained losers. While the two big parties each can manage to hold the full range of beliefs, even these hugely broad parties need a definition.

The Republicans are ongoing, but for the Democrats this is an era to become something new or cease to exist. The elements are there to create a "progressive" agenda that feels comfortable to those of us who have been around for a few decades or more, and yet be attractive to voters and potential voters who have thought more about the problems of their own lives than about party loyalties.

(Andrew Barnes is editor, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Times.)