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Democrats: Where Do They Go from Here?

8 minute read
Walter Shapiro

Little more than 36 hours after finishing first in the New Hampshire primary with 33% of the vote, Paul Tsongas was flying halfway across America for what he thought would be a campaign speech to the South Dakota legislature. There was one small problem: his staff had forgotten to tell the former Massachusetts Senator that the speech had been scrubbed in favor of a visit to the stockyards and a meeting with a newspaper editorial board. Stunned to learn from a reporter about the abrupt change in plans, Tsongas asked, “Where am I going tomorrow?”

Tsongas’ befuddlement over his schedule can serve as a metaphor for the plight of his underfunded and ill-organized campaign as it struggles to transform New Hampshire hoopla into a full-throated national crusade. But the where-am-I-going question is also an apt shorthand for the unpredictable Democratic race itself, a bizarre contest that has made political pundits look as reliable as racetrack touts.

Because all the Democrats except home-state Senator Tom Harkin passed up the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire stood out as the only state where people could actually talk to the candidates in settings other than staged photo opportunities. Frightened by the middle-class recession, voters demanded of the candidates I-have-a-plan economic specifics and refused to be diverted from their high-minded commitment to issues by sideshow scandals.

Tsongas, the ungainly long shot with his stark probusiness philosophy, ran strongest among college-educated and independent voters. Looking beyond the controversies that have dogged the Arkansas Governor, New Hampshire granted Bill Clinton a strong second-place finish (25%) so that on primary night he could proclaim himself “the Comeback Kid.” The big losers were two Senators who never grasped that so far 1992 represents a repudiation of politics as usual. War hero Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, an oddly diffident campaigner, offered the voters his biography wrapped in a glib media campaign and finished a poor third (11%). Harkin (10%) with his old-line liberalism and attack-dog persona came across as strident and out of touch. Quixotic Jerry Brown (8%) eked out a moral victory by running nearly even with Kerrey and Harkin on a shoestring budget.

The race will now enter a chaotic phase. Democratic leaders have stacked many primaries and caucuses in early March to create an artificial stampede for a consensus nominee. But this frantic schedule means that just when the candidates should be gradually introducing themselves to most voters, they have to embark on a merciless two-week media-market march through 14 primaries and 10 state caucuses, climaxing with 11 contests on Super Tuesday, March 10.

Pity the poor Democratic voter in a March-madness state. If after months of mulling the candidates, nearly half the New Hampshire voters were still vacillating three days before the primary, imagine the misery of selecting a favorite based on a hastily glimpsed campaign spot, a few snippets on the nightly news and a handful of newspaper clips. Here is how the race looks as the candidates zoom from airport rally to hokey media event, praying they can get their message across amid the din:

THE COMEBACK KID. If 1992 were a normal political year, the auguries would make Clinton the favorite. He alone has that magic elixir called money in the bank — $2 million after New Hampshire with $1 million more in federal matching funds on the way. Small wonder that Clinton fund raiser Bob Farmer proclaims, “This will be all over by Illinois,” one of the two big Rust Belt primaries (Michigan is the other) that will be held on March 17. Much of the upcoming political terrain is made to order for Clinton, the lone Southerner in the race and the contender who appears most at ease courting black voters. Between March 3 and Super Tuesday, nine states below the Mason-Dixon Line will hold primaries.

The Clinton campaign calculates that to set the mood for Super Tuesday, the Arkansas Governor has to first sweep Georgia (March 3) and South Carolina (March 7). A bit trickier is Clinton’s need to prove that he can win outside the South, perhaps by trying to spend his rivals into oblivion in Colorado (March 3) or, less likely, by going head-to-head with Tsongas in Maryland the same day. Clinton’s hopes, especially in the South, rest on mobilizing middle-class anger behind his plan for economic recovery.

But Clinton still cannot afford a misstep. Though the New Hampshire results crowded out the Clinton headlines about Gennifer Flowers and his Vietnam-era draft status, the threat lurks in the shadows; in Savannah a veteran held aloft a sign that read NO DRAFT DODGER OR PLAYBOY FOR PRESIDENT. As a Clinton campaign aide put it, “It’s a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous. Every single day has to go by. It’s never completely behind you.”

TSONGAS THE SERIOUS. Looking at what passes for Tsongas’ national campaign, it is tempting to dismiss his strong New Hampshire finish as a freak of nature. Tsongas is, after all, a contender who introduced Texas railroad commissioner Bob Krueger as “my Southern connection” and meant it: that is about all the organizational support Tsongas has in many March primary states. The campaign last week had just one staff member in Georgia and a lone 19-year-old holding down the fort in South Carolina. True, Tsongas raised $360,000 the day after New Hampshire, but he still largely depends on unsolicited checks turning up in the mail.

It all seems reminiscent not of St. Jude but of Gary Hart’s up-from-nowhere 1984 surge that carried him to the cusp of nomination. Miracles do happen in politics — for that rare candidate who resonates with the national mood. Tsongas got it right when he referred to his supporters as “true believers” and reminded them, “When I was cast aside, you took me in; you gave me sustenance.”

To justify this near messianic rhetoric for long, Tsongas needs the pick-me- up of another dramatic victory, and next week’s primary in Maryland, a state with a proven affection for low-key cerebral Democrats, remains his best shot. Tsongas’ challenge is to show that he is an economic statesman with the courage to tell the truth to the American people, while painting Clinton as just another glad-handing Governor willing to pander to the voters with giveaways. That is why Tsongas, the candidate of pain — both economic and personal — zings Clinton over his advocacy of a middle-class tax cut, a ! popular, but economically questionable, nostrum.

STAYING ALIVE. For all the talk that the New Hampshire vote would cut down the field — or be so fractured that party power brokers could lure a big-name contender into the fray — it remains a five-man race. Despite nudges and nods from Albany, the overhyped Mario Cuomo write-in campaign (4%) drooped as badly as New York State’s credit rating. Clinton’s resurrection was enough to scare off potential candidates like Congressman Richard Gephardt and Senator Lloyd Bentsen. The message from New Hampshire was an unequivocal one: “No guts, no glory.”

Kerrey and Harkin will duel it out this week in the impossible-to-predict South Dakota primary. Kerrey remains the far more intriguing candidate, both in his potential electability and in his still evolving efforts to define himself. Voters like Kerrey, but they do not understand him, especially when he makes such cryptic comments as “I know what it is like to be alone, and I’ll tell you when I’m President there won’t be a single person who will feel alone.” Moreover, he cannot seem to explain how to connect the dots in his shadowy vision of “fundamental change.”

Harkin can only dream of his potential breakthrough primaries, Michigan and Ohio, a long and lonely three weeks into the political future. Although he won the support of 14 AFL-CIO unions last week, the angry prairie populist must be asking himself, “Aren’t there some traditional Democrats still alive, somewhere?”

Brown, the turtlenecked Pied Piper for the young and the restless, has few short-term worries. His 800-number fund raising brings in enough cash to fuel his no-frills caravan, his now modulated debate style attracts anti- Establishment votes, and he knows the race ends on June 2 on his home turf of California. In his inimitable way, Brown may have found the perfect low- overhead formula, not for the nomination, but to endure as the last challenger to the presumptive nominee.

Who that nominee will be remains a guessing game. But the prize is there for the taking in an anything-can-happen contest likely to be decided by a combination of TV imagery, strategy, money, luck — and if voters can see through the murk, the quality of the candidates’ ideas.

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