Democratic candidates find that gulf crisis complicates their campaigning

September 16, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Heading into the last seven weeks of the 1990 campaign, Democrats are trying to steer a tricky course between solidly backing President Bush's policy in the Mideast and sharply attacking his leadership at home.

Their awkward balancing act is a response to the cross-currents Democratic candidates must navigate this fall: Voters are supportive of military moves by the Republican administration in the Persian Gulf but are increasingly restive over the stalemate in Washington on the budget deficit and other issues.

At its pre-election session yesterday at a Washington hotel, the Democratic National Committee approved a resolution strongly endorsing Bush administration actions in the Persian Gulf while criticizing its domestic priorities.

"The Democratic Party stands behind our president as he acts to roll back Iraq's blatant agression," Democratic Chairman Ronald H. Brown told the DNC yesterday. "[Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein will get no mixed signals from America or from this party."

In the next breath, Mr. Brown unleashed a lengthy assault on Mr. Bush's economic and social policies, which he described as a rerun of the failed initiatives of the Reagan years.

"We'll stand up to Saddam Hussein but we won't stand by as the new Republican recession wreaks havoc on our economy," he said.

To dramatize its fall strategy, the party showcased its leading foreign policy expert, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., at an executive committee session Friday.

Mr. Nunn, a potential 1992 presidential candidate, termed the fiscal policies of the Reagan and Bush years "a disaster." While praising the president's Mideast goals, he said the

administration should press harder for allied contributions, singling out the Japanese to "get off their wallet" and assume a greater share of the burden.

By getting behind Bush administration policies in the gulf, Democrats hope to limit any political advantage Republicans might gain from the president's actions and from any fighting that might erupt in the Middle East before the Nov. 6 election. For years, Democrats have been hurt politically by perceptions that they are less reliable than are Republicans in defending U.S. interests abroad, a legacy of the Democratic-led opposition to the Vietnam War.

There was a brief echo of that old sentiment yesterday as former Representative Bella Abzug of New York objected mildly to the party's sweeping endorsement of the military buildup in the gulf, questioning whether it violated international law or the War Powers Act. Her remarks were greeted with indifference by other party leaders.

Officials in both parties say events in the Persian Gulf are largely overshadowing mid-term electioneering, making it harder for challengers, in particular, to be heard.

"People are not paying attention to the campaign at all," complained John A. Marino, state party chairman in New York, where Democrats are trying to gain control of the state Senate.

Since most incumbents are Democrats, the lack of attention is good news generally for the party, however.

But with their internal polls showing that public confidence in the Democratic-controlled Congress is down, Democratic strategists see a potential for anti-incumbent sentiment to sweep the country in November. Nothing has surfaced yet to trigger that mood, but opinion surveys continue to show that Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

At a press conference, Mr. Brown said that most voters don't blame their own representative or senator for the problems in Washington. By trying to make the Republican administration the scapegoat for a worsening economy, Democrats hope to turn recession fears to their advantage.

"I think voters are going to vote this November on pocketbook issuesthat were on the front page of the newspaper before the Persian Gulf crisis," said Mr. Brown, predicting that his party would hold all 17 of the Senate seats it is defending this year.

At yesterday's DNC meeting, one of the shortest and least contentious in memory, party leaders approved rules for the 1992 national convention. Among the changes was the addition of 80 delegate seats for so-called "super delegates," or party and

elected officials from around the country.

The action, taken without audible dissent, reversed a key part of the party's 1988 convention deal with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to reduce the number of delegates not chosen directly by primary or caucus voters. As a result of changes made yesterday and earlier, there will now be more super delegates at the 1992 convention than there were in 1988.

Jackson supporters, including Mr. Jackson's son, Jesse Jr., declined to explain their decision not to oppose the changes, which reportedly followed a phone conversation between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Brown, who helped engineer the original deal as the 1988 Jackson convention manager.

Mr. Brown praised the unusually early action on the 1992 rules as "a great step" toward eliminating the divisive internal battles that have crippled the party in the past.

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