Democratic leaders will gather here this weekend to assess whether their 1988 loss was Michael Dukakis' fault or part of a broader problem that could also kill Democratic chances in 1992.
On the official agenda at the meeting of Democratic state chairmen are the usual reports and speeches, and much of the session will be given over to an informal post-mortem on the Dukakis campaign. One chairman called it a gathering of "Monday morning quarterbacks."
But behind the scenes there will be wrangling over two more immediate concerns to party leaders:
_ Who will be the party's next national chairman?
_ Will the party redraw its delegate selection rules for 1992 in hopes of coming up with a stronger candidate in the general election?
Neither question will be decided here, but the groundwork will be laid for the party's ultimate decision. In the longer term, some officials will express unhappiness with the Iowa caucuses and the Southern Super Tuesday primary. What's said here will be an early test of how willing the Democrats may be to change those early contests.
Some moderate party members say the Democrats need to take substantive action to demonstrate to the country they're interested in changing their ways.
"It's more than important _ it's vital," says Bill Gal-ston, who was 1984 nominee Walter Mondale's chief issues adviser and now is a University of Maryland professor. "If things go wrong, the Democratic Party could move in the direction of the British Labor Party (which has become divided and estranged from the electorate), and if that happens the Democratic Party will be increasingly marginalized as a national political force. It has to acknowledge it has a real substantive problem."
The party's direction will be signaled by its choice of chairman early next year.
Those aligned with Jesse Jackson are supporting efforts by Ron Brown to become national chairman. Brown, a Washington attorney who was Jackson's convention manager last summer in Atlanta, has been lobbying with the Democratic National Committee for the post.
However, incumbent chairman Paul Kirk has been asked by party insiders to stay on to avoid a bitter battle for his post. Kirk is believed to have the votes for another term if he wants it. There's also talk that he might elect to stay on but not serve a full four-year term, thereby buying some breathing room for the party factions to settle on a compromise candidate.
Whoever is the chairman will have to deal with the question of party nominating rules. Moderates say the process has stacked the deck in favor of liberals, who win in the primaries and lose in November.
The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses also will come under attack. Party conservatives say Iowa favors liberals and those candidates without serious jobs who can spare the time to campaign through the state's living rooms. Iowa backers say its informal style of campaigning allows unknown candidates to develop a following.
The Super Tuesday primary, with 12 Southern states, will come under fire from party conservatives who fear that contest - along with some proposed rules that would diminish the clout of party officials - would give Jackson an advantage. Up to 35 percent of the voters in Democratic primaries in those states are black.