• U.S.

Fritz Hits One Out of the Park

11 minute read
Evan Thomas

In New York, he scores with the old coalition

Despite his broken nose, Walter Mondale does not seem like much of a brawler. He wears gray business suits, his father was a Methodist minister, and his favorite sport is fishing. As a politician, he has displayed caution, even a certain softness.

But in the six weeks since Mondale lost the New Hampshire primary, he has jabbed and taunted Gary Hart. Last week he gave Hart a lesson in oldfashioned, gut-cutting New York politics. Mondale won the biggest primary so far, by a whopping 45% to 27%, and set himself up once again as the clear front runner in the Democratic race. Hart’s appeal to a “new generation,” his high-flown “new ideas” so seductive to the Yumpies of New England, fell flat among skeptical New Yorkers. Mondale, meanwhile, was able to piece together the old New Deal coalition of the poor and elderly, labor and Jews, party chiefs and “real Democrats.”

His victory was not patchwork. Mondale swept nearly every age and income group. “We won everyone but the rich Wasps,” crowed an aide.The landslide left Mondale ebullient. “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” he told a roaring victory celebration, paraphrasing a line from the Theme from New York, New York. The victory brought his delegate total to 900, compared with Hart’s 520, and emphatically proved that Mondale can win the support of voters as well as party bosses.

Still, Mondale owed much to the backing of the state’s Democratic leaders—New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and particularly Governor Mario Cuomo. In exit polling, 20% of New York voters said they were influenced by the endorsements, and 90% of that group voted for Mondale. Virtually taking control of Mondale’s campaign, serving as both surrogate and spokesman for the former Vice President, Cuomo established himself as a national figure in his own right.

The other big winner was Jesse Jackson. By turning out the black vote en masse, he came within one percentage point of overtaking Hart’s stalled campaign. Yet Hart outspent Jackson on political advertising $800,000 to zero. It was an extraordinary showing by the charismatic civil rights leader. He won well over 80% of the black vote, as well as the respect he demands from white Democratic leaders. They will have to listen very carefully when Jackson asks a price for the several hundred delegates he expects to bring to the Democratic Convention in San Francisco this July (see following story).

Hart’s crash left aides sifting through the wreckage, trying to figure out how they erred in order to rebuild the campaign for this week’s Pennsylvania primary. They did not have to look hard.

His first mistake was to bicker with Mondale. Taken aback by Mondale’s onslaught, Hart was defensive and churlish. Too late, he tried to clamber back on the highroad. “I have really tried very hard not to attack anyone in this race,” he insisted in a local television debate two days before the primary. “Voters are fed up with this penny ante, picky business.” But he could not restrain himself and fell to quibbling with Mondale over who had started the negative campaigning. Chastened by the New York landslide, Hart grimly announced, “If New York proved anything, it was that he [Mondale] got me down to his level, and he’s not going to do that any more.”

On the major issue of the New York primary, foreign policy, Hart played politics—and lost. He tried to outpromise Mondale for the Jewish vote, falling into a foolish argument over who was most eager to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a touchy issue not likely to be settled satisfactorily during an election year. At the same tune, he accused Mondale of endangering young men by agreeing with President Reagan’s Central American policies. (Mondale counters that he would keep only a small military force in the region and would not support the contra rebels in Nicaragua.) A Hart television ad showed a slowly burning fuse and asked, “Remember Viet Nam?”

Mondale counterattacked with his own ad showing a red phone ringing ominously in the night, as a voice asked voters whether they really wanted an “unsure, unsteady, untested hand” to answer. Declared Cuomo’s political counselor, Timothy Russert: “The red phone beat the burning fuse. The phone symbolized Mondale’s maturity. The fuse was hot and uncertain and excitable, and I think it blew up in Hart’s face.”

Exit polls support Russert: voters did doubt Hart’s experience and steadiness. But as Hart points out, he had only six weeks to get his message across to a public that had barely heard of him before the Iowa caucuses (in early February, only 15% of Democratic voters could name him as a candidate). The intense magnification of instant celebrity made even Hart’s slightest slip look like a lurch and sent voters scurrying into the safer, more familiar embrace of Mondale.

Mondale’s aides sensed that Hart could be rattled. Said one: “Hart is quite brittle. He can’t admit mistakes. They are always the fault of some aide.” They had little trouble persuading Mondale to take up the cudgel. “He warmed right up to it,” marveled an aide. Mondale believed that he had Hart cowed.

While Hart was maneuvering around ineffectively on foreign policy, Mondale was appealing to the economic worries of New Yorkers, vowing to protect their jobs from foreign competition, never to cut Social Security and to restore cuts in programs for the poor. The pitch worked in New York, which has an unemployment rate of 6.9%; the Mondale camp hoped it would work even better in Pennsylvania, where joblessness stands at almost 10%. Last week Mondale pointedly reminded Pittsburgh voters that he pushed—and Hart opposed—federal aide to the nearby Wheeling steel plant.

Mondale’s big victories—Michigan, Illinois, Alabama, New York—have mainly come in states with high unemployment; Hart has generally won in states with brighter economic prospects. Pennsylvania has important elements of Mondale’s coalition, including a higher median age than any other state except

Florida and New Jersey, and almost as many union members as New York. Like New York, Pennsylvania does not allow Republicans and independents to vote in its Democratic primary, cutting down Hart’s more broad-based appeal.

Mondale, however, did not have a large base of Jewish voters to build on in Pennsylvania, where they make up some 3% of the Democratic enrollment. In New York, Jews make up about a quarter of the party and went for Mondale 2 to 1. Nor could Mondale count on a Democratic power structure in Pennsylvania; the state’s Governor and two Senators are Republicans. He did have the support of Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, but Goode’s black following figured to be split, if not swallowed by Jackson.

At week’s end Hart was striving mightily to focus his campaign of “new ideas” on the main issue of the Pennsylvania primary, the state’s flagging industrial economy. He insisted that a piecemeal approach to rescuing companies with federal loans—Like the cash infusion for Chrysler that Vice President Mondale helped arrange and Senator Hart voted against—was not the answer. Scoffing at “leadership that offers wornout, stale promises, bailouts and Band-Aids,” Hart presented himself as the only candidate with an overall plan for revitalizing the nation’s old industries, such as steel and autos.

Hart offered an intriguing proposal to set up funds for retraining workers by requiring contributions from both employees and employers, with the Federal Government chipping in on behalf of lower-paid workers. But his main gambit would be to gather in the Oval Office the business and labor leaders of several “keystone” industries (he put steel, which is sagging badly in Pennsylvania, at “the top of the list”) and representatives of private capital to work out a giant deal. Management would get loans to modernize factories, and workers would get job guarantees in return for putting off wage hikes. There is a model of sorts for this exercise in White House jawboning in President Kennedy’s success at persuading some domestic steel companies to reduce their prices in 1962. But that involved just one industry and one specific issue, and even then it thoroughly exasperated J.F.K.

If Hart tried to keep his economic proposals on a high plane, he also resumed his attack on Mondale as the tool of special interests who makes promises he cannot later keep. In front of the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, shut down by the Carter Administration in 1977, Hart noted that Mondale, as a candidate for Vice President in 1976, had promised to keep it open. Hart could not resist making a few promises of his own. With an eye toward Pennsylvania’s large elderly vote, he vowed to veto any cuts in Social Security. He also argued that he was the only candidate with a real chance of beating Reagan. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette poll supported him, showing Hart ahead of the incumbent 52% to 38% but Reagan leading Mondale 48% to 42%.

For the most part, though, Hart managed to avoid the backbiting that crippled him in New York. At a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Pittsburgh, both candidates were on their best behavior. They had been warned against outbursts by Moderator Elizabeth Drew, the prim New Yorker writer who wanted none of the unseemly clashes cheerfully tolerated by CBS Anchorman Dan Rather, who had presided over a slugfest a week earlier in New York. At that debate, the candidates sat around a small table and took turns tattooing each other. In Pittsburgh, they sat behind lecterns and politely exchanged paragraphs of their stump speeches. Even when the time came to question one another, they tossed softballs. (Mondale to Hart: “I support the freeze. What’s your view?” Hart: “I share that fundamental belief with you. . . “)

Hart expected to lose Pennsylvania, but he considered it just one more round in a “Ping Pong match.” Last week in Wisconsin, Hart narrowly won a “beauty contest” popular vote on Tuesday, but lost the actual delegate selection at the party caucuses on Saturday, by 2 to 1. Of the remaining 1,601 delegates to be chosen after this week, almost a third—563—are from Western states. Coloradan Hart expects to “do well” in such forums as his home state on May 7, Oregon on May 15 and

California on June 5. He also thinks he can bounce back in the Midwest (Ohio, May 8) and East (New Jersey, June 5). For now, he says, “the voters are buying time. They’re not going to let anyone have this nomination early and easy.” Democratic officials regard Hart’s position as more precarious, noting that, after Pennsylvania, Hart must win roughly two out of every three delegates. “Gary can suffer a loss in Pennsylvania and still be a viable candidate, but he has to win everything after that,” says a top party strategist.

Mondale seemed back on course after a harrowing March, but to get there he had to steer a low road. His aides say that their candidate will continue to pummel Hart “until we beat him.” They realize that the strategy could suddenly turn sour, but they also recall that, when Mondale was on the high road, he began to lose, and badly. Taking the offensive helps Mondale conceal a fundamental weakness in his campaign: to many voters, the old-line Democratic Party that he stands for has no driving theme. At the same time, Mondale’s verbal jabs all but drowned out Hart’s attempts to explain his new ideas, which he must do to broaden his support.

The Republicans watched the struggle with barely concealed joy. “We think it will go on right until California, and the longer their fight goes on, the better it is for us,” said a senior White House official. Most G.O.P. strategists hope that Mondale emerges the winner. They doubt he can reach much beyond a core of 40% of the electorate, the old Democratic coalition of the poor, labor and minorities that worked for him in New York. Last week a Gallup poll showed Reagan’s approval rating at 55% nationwide.

Still, the President seemed slightly rusty fielding questions at his press conference last week, and a little desperate to make some headlines. For all their scars, the Democrats have been hogging the limelight. They have also become nimble debaters and seasoned campaigners. Says Cuomo Aide Russert: “We love to fight. It keeps us in good shape.” —By Evan Thomas. Reported by Sam Allis with Mondale and Hays Corey with Hart

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com