• U.S.

A Wild Ride to the End

9 minute read
Kurt Andersen

With Hart taking two more states, the Democrats face a messy scramble

The political odds are still heavily in Walter Mondale’s favor. So why does he seem anxious and downhearted? And why is Gary Hart, who still figures to be an also-ran at the San Francisco convention eight weeks from now, so full of zip and good cheer?

Mondale’s malaise derives from a fact that hit home again last week: Democratic voters refuse to embrace him firmly and finally. He faces the distinct possibility that he may not amass a majority of committed delegates by the end of the primary season on June 5, thus setting off a messy preconvention scramble that could further divide his party. Hart’s buoyant mood is understandable too. The Colorado Senator has won four of the last six primaries, including landslides last week in Nebraska and Oregon. The two outdoorsy, overwhelmingly white states were prime Hart territory, and in both he beat Mondale by 59% to 27%, giving him the largest margins racked up in any binding state primary this year. Hart expected to demonstrate his Western power again by winning the Idaho caucuses this week.

Indeed, Hart will probably finish the spring having won most of the primaries and perhaps even a majority of the cumulative popular vote. Yet Mondale still has a wide lead in total delegates (1,564 to 941, as of last Saturday) because of his victories in the big industrial states, his support from the Democratic Establishment and the arcane provisions of delegate-selection rules that his vanguard helped draft two years ago. Even if Hart should sweep the five remaining primaries on June 5, including those in California (306 delegates at stake) and New Jersey (107), his delegate total would still be just about 1,200—well short of the 1,967 needed to nominate. Mondale at the same time would probably have 1,600 delegates who were actually elected as Mondale delegates, and another 200 who have said they support him; he would thus be within 200 votes of nomination. The question would then be whether Mondale, coming out of a sorry primary-season finale, could wheedle and persuade enough uncommitted delegates to make up that shortfall. “I think by the time of the convention, we’ll have enough delegates,” said Mondale last week, backing away from aides’ earlier predictions that he would have the needed majority just after the last primary. Countered Hart: “The Democratic Party will not nominate a candidate who loses both California and New Jersey.”

Although only 24 delegates were at stake in Nebraska, Hart spent five days there the week before the primary. The popular young Governor, Bob Kerrey, taped TV commercials endorsing Hart and made campaign appearances with him. Mondale whizzed through the state once, for seven hours. He lost all 93 counties to Hart. In a primary-eve speech, the winner teased his absent opponent. “I’ve been traveling around here and in Oregon, and I haven’t found him. Have any of you seen Mr. Mondale out here?”

Mondale, reckoning Oregon a lost cause, did not stop there at all, and says he budgeted a mere $3,000 for the state, “not enough to elect an alderman.” Hart spent $70,000. Oregon voters, urban hipsters and rural people alike, tend toward the kind of self-reliant, pine-scented progressivism that the Coloradan espouses; an endorsement from the influential Portland Oregonian also helped. Hart’s white-water raft trip down a stretch of Oregon’s Deschutes River was a picture-perfect dramatization of his appeal. “I love danger,” he said after shooting the rapids. “It was wonderful—too short, but so is life.” Three days later he was on horseback, all smiles, galloping across Colorado rangeland and into a photo opportunity.

Hart really does seem more in his element out West; he smiles easily, jokes and jives with his campaign entourage more comfortably. Besides, his reorganized staff has acquired greater discipline and savvy, functioning smoothly despite a missed May paycheck. Mondale’s campaign staff, once a model of well-funded Scandinavian efficiency, is fraying. The payroll has been cut by 30% this month. Last week, for the first time this year, Mondale and his aides passed up their expensive charter jet tofly Republic Airlines east from Los Angeles.

Both candidates will be bicoastal for the next fortnight, campaigning in California and New Jersey, spending heavily on TV ads. Under the California rules, the candidate whose delegate slates run strongest in each of 45 congressional districts could capture all the delegates for that district, making possible a big statewide delegate sweep. The image that Hart is trying to project—rugged and glamorous, unburdened by tradition, receptive to novel ideas—should play well among California voters, many of whom see themselves the same way. But Mickey Kantor, the high-gear manager of Mondale’s California effort, asserts that his man will not lose the state, despite his Frostbelt starchiness. Says Kantor: “We’re going to win here. The glitz won’t bother Fritz.”

Jesse Jackson can probably count on getting a few dozen delegates, mostly from black districts in Los Angeles and Oakland. Yet in California, at least on the surface, his claim to be leading a “rainbow coalition” seems legitimate. Half his delegate candidates are not black. In San Jose early in the week, he very nearly won the endorsement of the state’s Mexican American Political Association, despite Mondale’s solid ties to that group; later he sauntered across the Mexican border to tell Tijuana residents that, in his opinion, illegal aliens in the U.S. pose no special social burden. During the week he trotted out a group called Jews and Arab-Americans for Jackson in Oakland. He also addressed a rally of 500 Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, another of Chinese Americans in San Francisco and a group of homosexuals.

A win by Mondale in New Jersey would go far toward offsetting a California defeat and securing his nomination. (The other states voting that Tuesday are New Mexico, South Dakota and West Virginia.) But if Hart wins the two pivotal June 5 primaries, says a Mondale aide, eyes rolling heavenward, “it will be a war.” Mondale would have theunmistakable aura of a loser, despite his huge delegate count. “Don’t overlook chemistry,” says Hart of the convention cauldron. “Chemistry can overcome mathematics.”

The chemical warfare would surely intensify during the six weeks between June 5 and the convention. “That’s when the fun starts,” says Hart Campaign Manager Oliver Henkel. A large pack of local officials and members of Congress known as superdelegates will be up for grabs. About 200 of these 568 superdelegates are not yet chosen, and an additional 150 are not yet committed to a candidate. The other group of free-floating convention voters, elected delegates not committed to Mondale, Hart or Jackson, might be persuaded to sit on their hands. Then what? “The erosion will be rapid if Mondale falls short on the first ballot,” Hart Adviser Mark Hogan says hopefully. Uncommitted Superdelegate Peter Kelly, California Democratic chairman, seems prepared to slide for the good of the party. “Only one thing is going to influence my vote,” he says, “and that’s what the preponderance of national polls show. If they show Gary Hart running five to ten points better against Reagan than Mondale, then I’ll have to give serious thought to voting for Hart.”

Right now such polls show Hart no stronger than Mondale. What is more, Establishment delegates like Kelly tend to lean toward Mondale. “Ninety-five percent of the state’s party leaders are with Mondale,” he notes, “and they are the people who put me in office.” In any event, labor leaders, who will control hundreds of delegates, are not likely to desert their main man. Says a top Hart aide: “Let’s face it. They’d bring in a mummified Mondale to the convention at this point just to save face.”

The equation will become messier if Hart challenges the credentials of what he estimates to be 500 to 600 Mondale delegates elected with the help of contributions from political action committees (PACs). Mondale last week promised to establish a $400,000 escrow account to repay the PACs. It is almost inconceivable that the convention will rule that the delegates should be taken away from Mondale. But Democrats, who want to portray the Reagan Administration as ethically lax, are not eager for a nominee with a small “sleaze factor” of his own. Also disquieting was the revelation last week that Mondale gets $10,000 a month from a Chicago-based law firm that he joined in 1981.

The mistrust among Democrats is not as severe as during 1968 and 1972, when Viet Nam was the viciously divisive issue within the party. But a continued fight this summer could make the animus between Hart and Mondale as corrosive as that between Kennedy and Carter in 1980. Advisers in both camps still say that a reconciliation at the convention is likely, although a Mondale-Hart ticket (which could make sense for both men) remains problematic. Since there are no great ideological divisions between them, whether they achieve solidarity will depend on how well they can temper their personal rivalry. “I’m not bitter,” claims Hart. His wife Lee was anodyne as well. “We’ve been friends with the Mondales in the past,” she said last week, “and we’ll be friends with them in the future.” Mondale too hastens to insist that the reports of antagonism are “greatly overdrawn.”

Still, neither man would suggest that they are good chums. Their down-to-the-wire battle, moreover, must be a welcome spectacle to the man both ache to displace: Ronald Reagan. Last week TV stations started airing Reagan’s campaign of feel-good commercials, shrewd video collages of sunrises and teen-age athletes and parades, all designed to convince voters they are better off with Reagan in the White House.

The President had a scare Friday afternoon when, during a checkup, doctors found a tiny colonic polyp. It proved benign. Indeed, said a physician who examined him, Reagan is in “very exceptional” shape as the general election campaign approaches. The frenzied, fretful, fractious Democrats might well envy that tiptop appraisal.

—By Kurt Andersen.

Reported by Sam Allis with Mondale and Hays Gorey with Hart

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