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HUNGRY REPUBLICANS ARE LEAPING INTO 1996 RACE A BIT PREMATURELY

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In politics, timing can be everything. So why do so many Republicans think now is the hour to begin running for a job that won't be available for another 3 1/2 years?

The unseemly haste with which nearly a dozen GOP political figures are leaping into the 1996 presidential contest is as premature as it is startling.Senators, governors and politically unemployed former Cabinet officials are showing up at party functions and events in early primary states to strut their stuff and craft their messages. The general public doesn't give a hoot, but it never hurts to impress the party activists.

This early rush to the hustings reflects two major political realities: There's a power vacuum at the top of the Republican party, and President Clinton appears vulnerable.

The Republicans have not had a good multicandidate brawl since 1980 and are a bit out of practice. But after more than a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan and his anointed ones, hordes of frustrated, ambitious politicians are lining up for the suddenly unclaimed spoils.

One of the handicaps - or joys - of campaigning now is that the issues which will emerge from the policies and problems of the next three years to shape the 1996 debate are not yet clear. This means none of the eager beavers has very much yet to say.

So the Republicans panting for Clinton's job spend most of their time simply dumping on him for things with which they disagree. This gives the whole exercise a negative cast, and provides little in the way of fresh ideas that might actually suggest new thinking going on in the party.

Sigh. It is going to be a long campaign.

The early candidate line-up includes:

-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who will be 73 in 1996 but is the best-known, best-qualified and most experienced of the lot.

-Former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, much admired in Washington but currently going against the flow with demands for heavy military spending.

-Former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, the first GOP woman to seriously field-test a presidential candidacy and possessor of a tongue nearly as tart as Dole's but handicapped by a moderate image not presently in favor in her party.

-Ex-Vice President Dan Quayle, not much in demand as a speaker these days but by virtue of his former title still a potential player.

-Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a champion of cutting federal spending and holding the line on taxes who is one of the smartest men in the Senate but is little known outside his region.

-Former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, a favorite of many conservatives and perennial White House possibility who may not have the stomach to actually run when the time comes.

-Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, a whiz with punchy sound bites who is positioned on the far right on social issues like abortion and gay rights.

-Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, a thoughtful guy and great piano player respected by the pros but not particularly exciting on the stump.

-Governors William Weld of Massachusetts and Carroll Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, active party figures with no current national appeal.

-Evangelist Pat Robertson, who went nowhere in 1980 but whose influence over conservative Christian voters is not to be ignored.

-Pat Buchanan, currently posing once again as a journalist while organizing a political fund-raising group for what are definitely non-journalistic purposes.

The crowded field poses the likelihood of a party bloodbath similar to those nasty family fights for which the Democrats are famous. The sheer number of candidates, plus the social issues that already split the party, is a prescription for pure trouble.