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Snakebit on the Long Trail

12 minute read
Evan Thomas

Hart lives again as Mondale stumbles in the Midwest

The invitation read, “Help put Fritz over the top.” Balloons floated, booze flowed and the band played as hundreds of Mondale supporters jammed the Sheraton Washington Hotel last week to celebrate the beginning of the end of the Democratic race. Inquiring reporters were told to expect an early victory statement at 8 o’clock. At 9 p.m., Campaign Manager Robert Beckel assured the faithful: “We’re on our way. It’s only a matter of time now.”

But the time dragged. Small groups began to cluster around TV sets. Campaign workers whispered anxiously among themselves. Still no candidate, still no statement. Finally, a few minutes after 11 p.m., Walter Mondale waded slowly through the now diminished crowd, family and entourage in tow. His face was weary, his voice flat and somber. “I know we’re going to win this,” he insisted. “I know we’re going to be elected. That’s what the American people want.”

If so, it was hardly apparent from the results of “Super Tuesday II.” Mondale did win solidly in North Carolina (36% to Gary Hart’s 30% and Jesse Jackson’s 25%) and Maryland (43% to Jackson’s 27% and Hart’s 25%). But Hart came back from the brink to upset Mondale twice, in the key Midwestern states of Ohio (42% to 40%) and Indiana (42% to 41%). “Welcome to the fourth quarter,” Hart told a jubilant throng of his supporters at Washington’s National Press Club. “The message is clear. The Democrats and the people of this country are not prepared to have this contest and debate end at this time.”

Hart’s analysis was closer to the mark than Mondale’s. Still, the results were less a victory for the challenger than a defeat for the front runner. The former Vice President remains the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. But party chiefs fear that by the time he raises his arms in victory at the convention in San Francisco, he will have taken so many blows from his opponents he will be punch-drunk. Says Iowa Democratic Committee Chairman David Nagle: “If Hart sweeps the rest, Mondale’s going to be a badly wounded duck trying to fly home.”

With perverse consistency, voters seem to slap Mondale down every time he appears to have the nomination within his grasp. Having derailed Mondale’s “juggernaut” in New Hampshire, they briefly admired him as an aggressive underdog struggling back. But after Mondale regained the role of front runner, he began behaving like one again, calling for party unity and looking ahead to the contest against Ronald Reagan. To the voters, he was no longer “Fighting Fritz.” Once again he was what one party insider calls “Mondale Inc.,” the buttoned-up Establishment candidate who sells shares of himself to interest groups.

As soon as Mondale eased off, Hart began to strike back. “This Hart is like a snake you beat into the ground. You think he’s dead, then bam! He’s back to life again,” said Nagle. Ohio and Indiana, where unemployment rates are around 10% and organized labor is strong, seemed like safe territory for Mondale; he wears the union label proudly and had won every previous primary state in which unemployment exceeded 10%. But Hart was finally able to reach into the blue-collar vote with clever ads that showed the Colorado Senator standing in working clothes outside a Youngstown, Ohio, factory, simply listening while the employees carved up Mondale. (First worker: “Union leadership may get our dues, but they don’t get our hearts and minds.” Second worker: “We lost with Mondale before … He got up to bat and struck out. Now he wants another turn.”) For the first time in the campaign, exit polls showed Hart holding even with Mondale among voters whose families had been hit by unemployment. In addition, unlike the other big industrial states won by Mondale—New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois—Ohio and Indiana allowed “cross-over” voting by Republicans and independents; Hart ran ahead of Mondale among these groups by almost two to one.

Mondale’s aides acknowledged their candidate’s benign neglect of Ohio and Indiana. But they pointed to Mondale’s win in North Carolina, where Hart made the mistake of vaguely threatening to cut off federal price supports for tobacco. In Maryland, where Hart campaigned for barely half an hour, Mondale carried even the suburbs, home of Hart’s usually loyal cadre of young, upwardly mobile professionals, the Yumpies. Indeed, when the counting was over in last week’s primaries, Mondale had actually won 42 more delegates than Hart, 184 to 142. (Hart overwhelmingly won the caucuses in his home state, Colorado, but the 43 delegates still have not been apportioned.) Mondale aides continue to insist that the delegate tallies heavily favor their man. Campaign Chairman James Johnson predicted that Mondale, who now has 1,528 delegates, would win the necessary majority (1,967) in the last round of primaries, on June 5. To do so, he must win 53% of the 829 delegates yet to be chosen.

The final seven primaries and one caucus will choose 571 of these delegates. In five of the remaining contests, Mondale is the underdog. He has virtually given up on Oregon (43 delegates, May 15), where the Yumpie vote is strong, and faces an uphill struggle in Nebraska (24 delegates, May 15), where popular Governor Bob Kerrey is stumping for Hart. (Last week Kerrey’s sometime girlfriend, Actress Debra Winger, campaigned with Hart in Ohio.) Hart also has a slight edge in Idaho (18 delegates, May 24) and South Dakota (15 delegates, June 5).

Hart’s big bonanza may come in California (306 delegates, June 5). Jackson is favored in four largely black districts in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Mondale looks strong in some urban districts with heavy concentrations of union workers, Hispanics, Jews and the elderly. But Hart has great appeal among California’s large Yumpie population, particularly in high-tech Silicon Valley. Californians have a tradition of upsetting front runners; in 1976, for instance, their Governor, Jerry Brown, beat Jimmy Carter by 1.3 million votes. Indeed, California has not voted for the eventual Democratic nominee since it went for George McGovern in 1972.

Mondale hopes to buffer defeat in California with victories that same day in heavily Hispanic New Mexico (23 delegates) and pro-labor West Virginia (35 delegates). The big question on the last Super Tuesday of primary season is New Jersey (107 delegates). The state’s large labor, elderly and ethnic populations mirror those of New York and Pennsylvania, where Mondale won big, but unemployment is fairly low (6.8%), and voters have a reputation for backing underdogs in presidential primaries.

Mondale’s aides would very much like to collect New Jersey as “insurance.” Even so, they insist that Mondale could lose all the remaining contests and still reach the 1,967 mark. Agrees a congressional Democratic leader: “Mondale doesn’t really need to win any more to put him over the top.” Reason: he should do very well among the 219 “superdelegates” and 39 at-large delegates still to be picked from among party leaders and state officials.

Nevertheless, last week’s results showed once again that there is a deep reluctance among Democratic voters to confirm Mondale as the nominee. In Texas, for instance, where Mondale’s superb organization won the caucuses, many voters were bitter about the candidate as they left the polls. “Mondale embarrasses me,” complained Democrat Russell Glenn of Odessa. “He’s got more special interests behind him than west Texas has dirt roads.” Said Victoria Crosby of Brownsville: “If Mondale gets the nomination, I’ll vote for Reagan.” In Ohio, fully one-third of the voters in the Democratic primary told TV network exit pollers the same thing. In North Carolina, the exit polls anticipated a defection rate from Mondale that was even higher: 40%. A yet-to-be-released survey by Atlanta-based Pollster Claibourne Darden indicates that 70% of the voters who went with Hart in nine Southern states would vote for Reagan in November if Mondale wins the nomination.

Hart plans to stress the “electability issue” in future primaries and with delegates who may be wavering by convention time. “I love to ask these delegates to name me a single state south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Mississippi River that Walter Mondale can carry,” says Hart Adviser Patrick Caddell. “Their eyes widen with fright. They can’t name a single one.” The pitch has just one drawback: it is not clear that Hart would do much better. Exit polls in the North Carolina and Ohio primaries revealed voters defecting to Reagan at almost the same rate if Hart gets nominated. Darden’s polls reflect that Hart is no more able to be elected in the South than Mondale is. A Los Angeles Times poll published last week showed Reagan beating Mondale 53% to 41%. But the numbers were just as bad for Hart. He would lose to the President 52% to 41%.

Hart’s strategists are convinced that a continuing string of Mondale defeats will cripple the front runner before the convention, even if he continues to add to his delegate total. The momentum, they say, is once again with Hart. Hart’s aides will snipe away at Mondale’s labor ties and seize every opportunity to link his name and record to Jimmy Carter’s. They even hope to pin part of the blame on Mondale for the Soviet withdrawal from the Summer Olympics. “I’ll be interested in just what his role was in the Olympic boycott in 1980, now that it’s been thrown back in our face,” coyly wonders Campaign Manager Oliver Henkel. Says another Hart aide: “I hope Mondale says again that he privately led the fight against it, especially since it was his idea.” While aides unleash their volleys, Hart himself will press his “campaign of new ideas.”

Hart cannot win enough delegates to take the nomination on the first round. Even in a best-case scenario—doubling his 886 delegates—he falls short. His aim instead is to deny a first-round victory to Mondale. At the convention, Hart then hopes to win over uncommitted delegates, woo others away from Mondale, and get still other Mondale delegates thrown out. “It’s now a three-ring circus,” says Caddell. “The primaries, the delegate battle, and the rules and credentials fights.” Hart claims that some 500 Mondale delegates should be disqualified because they were chosen with the help of “delegate committees,” groups set up with money mostly from labor political action committees (PACS). Mondale has disbanded these ill-advised committees and even promised to give the money back, but Hart plans to hammer away at the issue. He has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission, and he keeps goading Mondale to return the money (which Mondale claims is about $300,000 but the Hart camp hints is at least twice as much). So far, both voters and the press have largely dismissed the delegate-committee squabble as little more than Washington “inside baseball,” but it could prove to be a festering sore for Mondale.

Unlike 1980, delegates are no longer absolutely bound to any candidate, even on the first ballot. The so-called robot rule or yanking rule that disqualified defectors (literally yanking them off the floor) was abolished in 1982. Nonetheless, party officials say there is still a moral obligation of delegates to vote for the candidate who brought them to San Francisco. This tie is likely to be especially strong on some delegates whose travel expenses to San Francisco are being paid for by organized labor. Hart’s chance of taking away delegates from Mondale is “just about zero,” insists Mondale Campaign Chairman Johnson.

Some delegates wonder, should the final round of primaries seem to wound Mondale irreparably, whether there might be some alternative besides Hart or Jackson, a fourth man who could capture the hearts of a restive convention. “Another candidate is the only hope we have against Reagan,” says William Rosasco of Florida, formerly a John Glenn delegate but now uncommitted.

The party pros are doubtful that a fourth man could emerge. “It just doesn’t work that way,” says Timothy Russert, an aide to New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo illustrates the dilemma. He is perhaps the most prominently mentioned alternative. Yet having endorsed Mondale and helped him mightily to win the New York primary, Cuomo is not about to turncoat. Nor would most of the delegates want to embrace such an untested, unknown prospect. Various other names float about: Party Elder Robert Strauss, Former California Governor Jerry Brown, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, even Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca. But all carry liabilities of either too little reputation or too much, and none have paid the same dues on the campaign trail as Mondale, Hart or Jackson. Says Texas Party Chairman Bob Slagle: “Our folks really believe in sweat equity. If you sweat for it, you get our first consideration.”

The party’s great fear is that Mondale will leave the convention not only sweating but bleeding. His aides had hoped to begin the healing process after sweeping the last batch of primaries. At week’s end state party leaders met in San Francisco. They hammered out convention logistics but mended no fences. “If Mondale had won all four primaries, this meeting would have been the start of the call for unity,” said Georgia Party Chairman Bert Lance. “I guess unity has been delayed for a while.” The Mondale camp had hoped the convention would be a four-day media event extolling the party and excoriating the President. But it could easily disintegrate into a bitter struggle over rules and delegate credentials, with Hart and Jackson hitting Mondale from different angles and sometimes in tandem.

Last week’s voting left Democrats in a dismaying but not unusual situation: divided and confused. “The Democratic Party has the greatest death wish known to man,” says Pollster Darden. Notes Florida Attorney General James Smith, an uncommitted delegate who is leaning toward Hart: “The party is struggling to find itself. A lot of Democrats just don’t know what they want. The people that want new ideas on the one hand and the people from the old school on the other just seem worlds apart.” Mondale still has not been able to bridge that gap, and until he does, or someone else does, the Democrats will not be able to forge a path to the White House.

— By Evan Thomas. Reported by Sam Allis with Mondale and David Beckwith with Hart, and other bureaus

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