The rise of Bill Clinton has been so sudden that his campaign advisers have been filled with an uneasy disbelief. "I'm extremely nervous about the whole thing," says Frank Greer, Clinton's media director. "It's going too well. No votes have been taken. I hate being in this perilous front-runner status." "I keep thinking, Harkin will come back, Kerrey will be coming back," worries George Stephanopoulos, the deputy campaign manager. "The timing doesn't feel right to me," frets Stanley Greenberg, Clinton's pollster. "There's a steady movement up. I don't quite understand how it happened given the limited exposure of the public to any of the candidates. None of them has moved up since September except Clinton." Clinton himself refuses to acknowledge his fortune out of fear of hubris. "Can you imagine?" he says to Stephanopoulos, referring to a reporter. "That guy asked me how I felt being so far ahead."

Various theories have already gained currency to explain Clinton's emergence. One focuses on the material side: he has better organization, more money, and a better press. Yet he started out on an equal footing. Another zeroes in on the ideological factor: he is being cast as the most electable candidate in a conservative era, because he is a Southerner. Yet within the party's liberal core, he is drawing strong support — from policy experts and activists, minorities, even labor. Their attraction to him reflects in part a simple desire to win. But it's more than that. It is not as though they have deep reservations that they are struggling to overcome to reach their decisions. In fact, they do not feel that this is a hard choice at all.

The primaries are not shaping up as an Armageddon of left against right, or as the takeover by an outsider unlettered in the ways of the party. Clinton is not being inflated into the front-runner on the helium of media hype. Clinton is winning the invisible primary, the one conducted in the minds of many in the party before the balloting begins. For all the scholarly arguments that the parties have been shunted to the side by the plebiscitary primaries, there is still a good deal of peer review that affects the outcome. In the case of Clinton, it is those in the loosely formed presidential party, rather than the congressional party, whose judgments have been elevating him.

Who the hell is Bill Clinton? If you have to ask, you're not a Democratic honcho. He is one of the best-known people among the party elites. There is probably not a single one among them of even marginal importance who has not made his acquaintance. Since he ran the Texas operation for George McGovern in 1972 with Taylor Branch, Clinton has introduced himself to ever-widening circles of party activists, intellectuals, and officials. Though he is only 45, he has served longer as governor of Arkansas than any other sitting governor has served in any other state. When he gave his infamous nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 convention, he was better known to more of the delegates than the candidate. A month before the event, for example, he gave a speech on the need for a national economic strategy to a conference of several hundred policy wonks gathered by the Democracy Project. These talking heads, with Ralph Nader loping on the side-lines, may have been hoping for a Dukakis administration, but they were Clinton's crowd. His wife, Hillary, fits right in. She attended Yale Law and serves as chairperson for the Children's Defense Fund. She is among the country's leading experts on educational reform and is an articulate public speaker. Her contacts apply a multiplier effect to his.

The swift coalescing around Clinton is at least as much a sociological as a political phenomenon. For he is the standard-bearer of a new Democratic establishment that has never really wielded national power but impatiently wants its chance in the aftermath of Reaganism. With the emergence of Clinton follows a whole phalanx of thinkers who have been gathering since the demise of Jimmy Carter. A few held minor positions in the Carter administration. Some of them worked for Gary Hart's campaign of "new ideas," which also implied the ascension of those with the ideas; even more joined the Dukakis effort, each one slotted like graduate students assigned classes at the Kennedy School. In exchange for their raised expectations, in each case, they received crushing disillusionment. With Clinton they feel that, despite his rightward shifts with the currents of the 1980s, they know him as an essentially liberal entity. The overwhelming feeling is relief.

The backgrounds of Clinton's campaign staff help explain the social dimensions of his political reach. Though they are almost all a notch or two to his left (with only a couple several degrees to his right), they, too, belong to the same political cohort as Clinton. This is not a fraternity, but a fairly close-knit group that lies near the center of the party. Clinton's major policy advisers (who have all been his friends since the late 1960s) are Robert Reich (Harvard public policy professor, TNR contributing editor, American Prospect editor); Ira Magaziner (management consultant); and Derek Shearer (public policy professor at Occidental, former editor of Working Papers). Rob Shapiro, the vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council think tank, is often part of their discussions. Clinton's top politicos include Stanley Greenberg (former political science professor at Yale); Frank Greer (media and labor consultant); campaign manager David Wilhelm (a former staffer at Citizens for Tax Justice); James Carville (a political consultant from Louisiana, whose last campaign was Harris Wofford's); and the campaign executive committee chairman, Mickey Kantor (an L.A. lawyer who helped set up the War on Poverty and served on the board of the Legal Services Corporations with Hillary Clinton). This suggests the network within the party, operating out of the limelight, that is largely responsible for the pre-primary groundswell.

The essential principle of Clinton's agenda — leaner, activist government — is the result of a rethinking of the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party that he and his wife have been part of for years. This long project may be called The Conversation. The Conversation is not about the nuts and bolls of getting elected. It is about why one should get elected and what to do if one is. Certain false cues have been part of this process, such as the search for labels (e.g., neoliberalism) as if these were political conclusions. Though certain ideas have become widely held among those in The Conversation, there has developed no simple orthodoxy, like Reaganism.

From the start, Clinton has been part of The Conversation, perhaps having more ties to more of those in it than any other elected Democrat. Over the years he has mastered the whole domestic policy curriculum that has evolved. He has done all the reading, and in Arkansas, an unpromising laboratory, tested some ideas in education and worker training, among others. But his experiments have sometimes fallen short. In his first term as governor, the graduate of Georgetown, the Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law alum, and McGovern activist, tried to do everything at once. And in 1980 he was defeated. Two years later he won back the governorship. "Some of my liberal critics have said that I was too cautious," says Clinton. "But I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a place where the state government has been a stronger instrument of change. What I learned out of that '80 defeat was that you have to focus, you have to explain to people very clearly where you are in history…. You have to keep them focused on two or three things and explain all your initiatives in terms of that. And you have to carry the people along with you…. I have been profoundly impressed by how much it was possible to do."

Clinton is as conversant as any of his experts on the details of policies. He is also aware of the differences among them. I asked him, for example, how he squared the seeming contradictions between the extensive research of Greenberg on the fears and hopes of working-class Reagan Democrats who have been alienated from the party with the notion advanced by Reich in his latest book. The Work of Nations, that the realities of the global economy render only human capital non-portable across national boundaries, making education the salient priority. Clinton's instant answer was "Ira Magaziner," whose books have argued how to rebuild a U.S. manufacturing base. "You have to have an economic strategy that goes beyond just educating the work force," said Clinton. "There are things you can do to organize to compete and win in the global economy and maintain a manufacturing base." For hours, if you will listen, he will gladly enumerate them.

Unlike Dukakis, Clinton is no mere technocrat. Dukakis was not really part of The Conversation, but a consumer of formalistic aspects of it. He didn't listen very well, and he mechanically repeated what he had learned as though case studies were scripture. According to Reich, who has advised both men, the contrast is striking: "Dukakis had complicated issues staffs. There were thousands of written position papers put into three-ring binders — the most complicated arrangement you can imagine. I don't know where the issues staff is with Clinton. He knows the issues as well as anybody. We have conference calls and Rob Shapiro says at the end, 'Clinton knows those issues better than I do.' Not only does he know them at a conceptual level but at a practical level. 'Adviser' is a peculiar kind of term to apply to the relationship. It's more like a kitchen debate."

Clinton has successive layers of polish: the policy expert, the folksy pol who loves to wade into crowds, and the savvy politico. "Clinton," says John Sasso, who was Dukakis's campaign manager, "has learned lessons from the last defeat. You have to make a sustained case for change in a very thematic way. That was the larger mistake of '88. Our real failing was not making a sustained case for change, which created the vacuum for flags and furloughs."

Clinton's ideological deftness has been among his chief political assets in the invisible primary. With a definite consistency, he has taken up the task of ideological circle-squaring. His tougher workfare proposals appeal to the right, but also to the left because they provide for more education and child care. His talk of "rights and responsibilities" for the underclass not only points to their own role in uplifting themselves, but is a wedge for more government activism. He is not only for restoring progressive taxation rates on the wealthy, but for a middle-class cut. As for his long-term economic strategy, he is for educational reform and infrastructure rebuilding. But he's not in favor of industry-specific investment. Rather he favors a civilian version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and net investment tax credits. At the same time, he's firmly anti-protectionist and favors fast-track free trade with Mexico.

The word "investment" itself — the most common one in the Democrats' new policy vocabulary — suggests the impulse for circle-squaring. Clinton does not retreat from justifying his new approaches with an unabashed defense of government activism. In his television spot airing in New Hampshire, he is plain about it: "Democrats who want government to do more — and I'm one of them — have to show fiscal responsibility." And he asks that voters call in so they can receive his detailed plan, which he is also mass mailing to every registered Democrat and has distributed to local libraries. Thus, Clinton has made policy specificity a threshold test in the primaries.

Three large external factors have made it possible for him to advance his candidacy within the party through his circle-squaring agenda. The first is the recent history of the party in which the vacuity of Carter was followed by the catastrophic response of Walter Mondale, who attempted to restore the Humphrey tradition by fixing it on Hooverite tax increases, followed disastrously by Dukakis, who was struck dumb until two weeks before election day when he inauthentically mouthed populist slogans. The second factor is the Bush recession, which has made a long-term economic strategy politically compelling. Bush, after all, has presided over the lowest period of growth since the end of World War II.

And then there is the most profound historic factor of all: the end of the cold war. With the cold war in place, Clinton would have been under stress as a Southerner to prove his bona fides as a defense Democrat, and as a national Democrat to prove himself as an arms controller. Like Al Gore's campaign in 1988, Clinton's might never have cohered. But with the cold war's end, the burden of proof has been lifted. The factional strife that violently rent the party at the 1968 convention — a fissure crucial to the rise of Reaganism — has dissipated.

The problem of the Democratic Leadership Council in his candidacy, which had a potential for harsh polarization, has been resolved fairly easily because the cold war is cold ashes. The DLC, founded in 1985 by Southern and Western politicians in the aftermath of Mondale's humiliating defeat, assumed a conservative dominance in the country and envisioned politics on a sharp left-right axis. As the DLC convention in 1991 approached, waves of ear-splitting static began to surround it when a few DLC leaders used the occasion for attacking the rest of the party, as if only the DLC were legitimate. Quietly and belatedly, Clinton, according to sources close to him, called in outside political advisers (now running his campaign) to vet DLC positions and his own speech. He did not fully trust "the political judgment" of some in the DLC, he confided to these sources. At the steering committee meeting of his presidential exploratory committee, held in September 1991 in Washington, more than forty of his key supporters convened to discuss his candidacy. The DLC; position — urging Clinton to adopt a Southern-based campaign of exclusionary strife that would be openly critical of liberalism within the party — was rebuffed by Clinton's politicos. With that, the DLC political strategy, as such, reached its conclusion.

Yet the DLC was assimilated into the process. Its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, has been integral to policy and speechwriting. But the role Clinton has played has been Mitterrandesque, defanging by embracing. "I don't think the DLC has much meaning," says one of Clinton's senior advisers. "Within the primary electorate, being Southern is more of a problem." "He's not a creature of the DLC at all. The DLC is a creature of Bill Clinton," says David Osborne, co-author of a forthcoming book that Clinton cites as influential, Reinventing Government. Still, Clinton feels the need to explain himself on this score. "I got all sorts of grief about my involvement in the DLC," he says. "But I never would have gotten involved if it was going to push the country to the right."

In recent months Clinton has ridden fortune. The prospect of Mario Cuomo's candidacy loomed so large that when it evaporated, the candidate poised somewhat falsely as his opposite was lifted into the swooping vacuum. Much of the press was prepared to cast the contest as left versus right, tradition against newness. No matter how hard Clinton might have resisted, he would have been twisted out of shape and portrayed as something he's not. "The danger was being pushed to the right, categorized as conservative and having a label take over," says a Clinton adviser. Cuomo's non-candidacy also coincided with the precipitous fall in the standing of George Bush, raising the value of the Democratic nomination. The effect on the others also served Clinton's cause. Tom Harkin's moment may have been when the party felt it had no chance and wanted emotional release through out-bursts of barnyard epithets. The withdrawal of Douglas Wilder has created the first primary season since 1980 in which there is no black candidate. Clinton, as a progressive Southerner, has a more natural affinity with blacks than either Harkin or Bob Kerrey, who come from virtually all-white rural states.

Kerrey, in a curious way, represents the false premise of the DLC, which pined for a battle-hardened war hero — if not Kerrey himself, then the image. His candidacy was a response to the warrior symbolism of the GOP, intended to tarnish the Democrats as soft. But with the ending of the cold war and the bloom off the Gulf war, that argument has faltered. Bereft of much of a rationale beyond his biography, Kerrey is not a part of The Conversation. What he has is not a deep reserve of support in the invisible primary, but a hastily assembled campaign team. Overnight, he has imploded into a TV ad in which the advocate of the Mexican free-trade pact suddenly materializes at a hockey net as the protectionist goalie: "Fight Back, America!" The slogan recalls Dick Gephardt's ad in the 1988 campaign: "It's your fight, too!" Both were produced by political consultant Bob Shrum, who may be the main barrier between Clinton and the nomination.

The Shrum attack comes at the moment of Bush's collapse at the Tokyo summit, the first summit after the fall of communism, a summit focused on the issue of economic power. Bush came as Commodore Perry and left as Homer Simpson. Clinton's grand opportunity is to enter the breach, to make the case for an economic strategy that gets tough and smart: "This administration and its predecessors, by having no economic strategy, have presided over economic decline, the destruction of the idea of progress," he says.

Integral to this is a rescue of the idea of practical, active government within the Democratic Party. This idea, muffled by loftier rhetoric on the left, was betrayed in recent years by the candidacy of Jimmy Carter. Within the Democratic Party, part of Clinton's appeal is that he is a Southerner who exorcises Carter's anti-government piety without reiterating the old position. He offers a genuine fusion of various converging strands within the Democratic Conversation. The peaceable kingdom within his campaign is a suggestion that he has the potential to heal the Democrats' internal wounds.

"He's the opposite of Jimmy Carter," says Peter Edelman, a longtime friend, former aide to Robert Kennedy, and associate dean of the Georgetown University Law Center. (His wife, Marion Wright Edelman, is president of the Children's Defense Fund.) "Bill's not running against government. It's not that he's a big government person. But he believes in a serious role for government." The contrasts are instructive. Clinton and Carter are from different classes and generations in the South. Carter was the son of a local planter, a Naval Academy graduate, a product of the post-New Deal Eisenhower era. Clinton's father died before he was born; his mother was a nurse, his stepfather an alcoholic Buick dealer. Clinton's education was not technical, but cosmopolitan. His formative political years were during the New Frontier, when the civil rights movement changed the segregated South in which he lived, and the federal government was viewed as a positive instrument by Southern liberals. "I was around Carter a lot," says Greer, an Alabama native. "He did not understand politics in the Democratic tradition. He came to this town wanting to be against government. Bill understands that you have to overcome people's sense that government can't do anything. He and I grew up in a South we thought would never change, but we saw a positive change." "I never viewed government as the enemy," says Clinton. "I think it has to be radically reformed so that the taxpayers feel it serves them."

Clinton's circle-squaring formulas may not ultimately be able to weld together the post-cold war Democratic Party. The primaries, after all, have not begun. But the promise of his nomination, even if it led to defeat in November, might be to solidify an epochal change: Clinton would be a pro-government candidate almost all the party could support and force a new political dynamic that could eventually bring about a Democratic victory. Reaganism was about the end of policy. The intent was to immobilize government, leaving the action to the private sector. Clinton is about the renaissance of policy, informed by the Reagan years but moving clearly away from them. His unwitting ally in the campaign may well be George Bush, who, attempting to divine what he thinks by responding haphazardly to criticisms and polls, is unconsciously positioning himself in the role of the Me-Too Republican. The broad post-Reagan debate is in full swing. Bush is baffled. Clinton, initially, is engaged.