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DEMO CONTRIBUTORS HUNTING FOR CANDIDATE

With fewer and fewer reasons to back the more obvious candidates to run against a formidable President Bush next year, many Democratic contributors are looking elsewhere.

Conventional wisdom is that Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas are the only potential candidates who can raise enough "seed money" by the end of the year to mount a decent campaign.Democratic strategists say that a candidate must have at least $5 million by then and another $10 million after that to carry him or her through the nomination process.

But some Democratic money bags and fund-raisers are throwing their lot in with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa on the grounds that a credible run by him would not hurt the party and that he may have a better chance than some of the bigger names. Some wealthy Democrats are donating cash to an "exploration" by Harkin and making promises of big money if he decides to make a run for it. Their view is that if Bush committed some irreparable goof between now and the election, or became suddenly ill, Harkin would stand as good a chance as the better-known candidates against a politically wounded Bush or a runner-up Dan Quayle. That assumes Harkin would have a running mate who was able to draw significant votes to the ticket.

An intriguing idea in the minds of some financial backers is that Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder would make the best vice presidential running mate for almost any of the Democrats except Rockefeller (because their states are neighbors).

"Doug has already devalued Jesse (Jackson) in the black community," one major fund-raiser told us. "Doug would get all of Jesse's black supporters without alienating most whites." Jackson is not a team player, and for that reason, the Democrats will never back him.

The Democrats would love to put Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a ticket, as the black with the most political appeal. But they doubt whether they could persuade him to enter the race. In fact, they're not even sure where his political sentiments lie.

Many of the Democrats with money have been turned off of Cuomo because of the sorry state of New York's finances.

They see Cuomo, in a run against Bush, carrying New York but not California and Texas, the other two states with big electoral votes. Cuomo also would probably lose the South and possibly Florida.

And Bentsen did not even come close to bringing Texas over to the Democrats when he was on the ticket with Dukakis in 1988. Although he ran a responsible and dignified campaign, Bentsen did not set many hearts afire, and that is why he is viewed by most Democratic leaders as a mere "sacrificial lamb" if the Democrats concede the 1992 race to Bush before it even begins.