• U.S.

Will Someone Else Leap In?

8 minute read
George J. Church

And so the big Democratic winner in the New Hampshire primary, the man who will use his victory there to roll his way to the nomination in July, turns out to be . . . er . . . uh . . . nobody. Or at least not any of the five principal candidates who were on the ballot. It could possibly be someone who still is not officially in the race but who may yet try to pull off a feat unthinkable even four years ago and just barely imaginable now: plunging into the contest in its late stages and emerging with the nomination.

This scenario could be flawed. If there is one thing that the quadrennial slogging through New Hampshire has taught Americans, it is never to take anything for granted until the last votes there are counted. And the past few times around the track, the true shape of the race — who was the real front runner, who the principal challenger, who the also-rans — has not been visible until Super Tuesday in early March, or even some of the big industrial-state primaries in April.

It is increasingly difficult, however, to visualize any of the starting five lifting his arms in the traditional V before an adoring convention come July — let alone graciously accepting George Bush’s concession on Election Night. Bill Clinton for a time looked like a deflating balloon, the air hissing out of his candidacy through a new pinhole labeled Draft Avoidance, as well as the previous puncture made by Gennifer Flowers. He has enough money and organizational support, especially in his native South, to remain a force at least through Super Tuesday on March 10. But even if he could start a comeback, he would not soon — if ever — regain the aura of inevitability he enjoyed in January.

Paul Tsongas had put on an amazing sprint to take the lead in New Hampshire polls. But he still seemed a regional New England candidate, and the more he is taken seriously, the harder questions about his health and stamina (he has recovered from lymphoma) will become. Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin by all ; appearances had failed to strike any sparks among the voters, and Jerry Brown still looked to be in a private orbit somewhere.

But the Democrats eventually have to nominate somebody. So the approach of actual voting paradoxically intensified the vulture watch — the speculation among party pros that another candidate, or possibly even several, could try a late swoopdown on the prize. California Democratic chairman Phil Angelides puts on the record a sentiment many others voice privately: “If one of these ((present five)) candidates proves big enough and strong enough, he will be the nominee. But if they cannot successfully make the case, then the party will look more broadly.”

Friends of House majority leader Richard Gephardt have already sounded out potential contributors. Talk is that the Missourian might enter the race as early as Thursday or Friday of this week, putting into effect a fairly detailed contingency plan he has developed to take advantage of a serious stumble by Clinton.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo, continuing his Hamlet act well past what had been thought to be the last scene, had done nothing to discourage either a New Hampshire write-in campaign or efforts to start a national draft movement. Then there is serious talk about Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 vice- presidential nominee — who has passed word that he would accept a draft — and Tennessee Senator Al Gore, like Gephardt a 1988 also-ran, plus more wistful speculation about Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell — almost everybody, it sometimes seems, who has ever said a regretful no.

If any vulture decides to fly, he had better start fast. By the time New Hampshire’s votes are counted Tuesday night, filing deadlines will have passed for primaries in 28 states that will elect about half of all the 4,287 pledged convention delegates. If Cuomo decided right now to jump into the race after all, he could no longer get on the ballot in his own state; the filing deadline for New York’s April 7 primary passed last week. If he, Gephardt or any other potential candidate tarries even past Thursday, he would also be shut out of the important May 5 primary in Ohio. Even if a new candidate were to file 30 seconds after the polls close in New Hampshire, he would have to win almost every last delegate from the states where he could still run to gain an outright majority. As a practical matter, he would have to collect large blocs of uncommitted delegates and those pledged to one of the five present candidates.

But victory for a latecomer cannot be called flatly impossible. Two changes in delegate-selection rules since 1988 make it at least thinkable. The Democrats have got rid of the “bonus” rules under which, for instance, Michael Dukakis in 1988 won 66% of Florida’s delegates with only 41% of the state’s primary votes. All primaries this year will be conducted under a system of rough proportional representation. That decreases the chances that any candidate can lock up a majority of delegates early.

Also, there will be more delegates than ever selected not in primaries or caucuses but by virtue of their positions as elected officials or party bigwigs. These so-called superdelegates will cast 770 votes at the convention: 18% of the total and 37% of the majority needed to nominate. Officially, all must be uncommitted; they may declare a preference but can change it at any time.

Thus it is possible to write a basic, though speculative, script: the vote in the early primaries is distributed so widely that no candidate is in sight of a majority. A late entrant sweeps the last batch of primaries, notably the final ones on June 2 in California, New Jersey, Alabama, New Mexico and Montana, the closest approach to a nationwide one-day sampling that the season offers. The superdelegates flock to his banner. Finally, one of the early candidates who obviously is not going to make it — or who has already dropped out — swings a deal. In return, perhaps, for the vice presidential nomination, he urges delegates still pledged to him to vote for the late starter. There already are rumors of just such a budding deal between Cuomo and Kerrey.

There are some variations on this scenario. One calls for kick starting a late entry by jumping into caucus states, which have no filing deadlines. Thus Gephardt, if he goes, could demonstrate early foot by scoring in the March 3 caucuses in Washington State, where he would have the powerful support of House Speaker Thomas Foley, and then bagging most of the 77 delegates to be chosen a week later in Missouri. The party faithful now favor Clinton, but if he seems to be limping badly by March 10, they could switch to native son Gephardt. Some of Gephardt’s House colleagues who are likely to be superdelegates have told him they too endorse him in March, creating an impression of rapidly gathering momentum.

There are also stratagems for a late starter to use in picking up delegates from states where he is not on the ballot. One is to win over delegates who are officially running as uncommitted. Cuomo’s admirers have already entered a technically uncommitted but actually pro-Cuomo slate in the Illinois primary March 17. The most far-out scenario is a postprimary draft; it seems so reminiscent of the boss-ridden days as to be almost unimaginable.

The other scenarios face obstacles that seem only marginally more surmountable. Most political consultants, media advisers, pollsters and other experts qualified to help craft a winning campaign have already signed up with one of the present candidates. A late starter consequently would be hard- pressed to throw together an effective organization. That goes double for fund raising, which has become critical in an era when the winning candidate is often the one who can afford to buy the most TV time. Proportional representation cuts two ways: it could keep a late starter from winning the lion’s share of the delegates in California, New Jersey and other states, even though he might well have to do so to prevail. Most important, perhaps, late starters would face the insistent question: If the party needs you because only you can beat George Bush, why didn’t you jump in at the start? The veiled — or unveiled — implication would be that the answer is political cowardice.

Much of the discussion of vulture scenarios is being prompted by sheer panic among officeholders who fear that a weak presidential candidate will drag down the whole ticket. Like opening-night stage fright, that panic could dissipate as voting begins and, perhaps, one of the present candidates proves stronger than anyone expected.

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