Nice guy, slippery target Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 15, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Sen. Claiborne Pell makes an extremely elusive target. Talking with two visiting reporters on the terrace of his home here, he is determinedly uncombative and as disarmingly pleasant as the early October breeze blowing in off Rhode Island Sound.

"I very much like and respect my adversary," he says of Rep. Claudine Schneider, his Republican opponent. And, when it is suggested she has been implying that at 71 he is too old for another term, Pell turns it away with a soft answer. "She is saying I was more productive in earlier years," he says, "and she is absolutely correct."

In those earlier years, he says, he was producing new ideas while today he has a different role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Senate elder. It is clear this is one politician who is not going to fall into a spitting match in a campaign year in which that has become the norm.

Pell's refusal -- or perhaps inability -- to play the conventional politics of the moment is obvious in another incident. In a debate with Schneider last month, he had committed what he concedes was a gaffe. Asked to cite a specific bill he had passed to help his Rhode Island constituents, he replied with a dangerous admission for a 71-year-old candidate: "I couldn't give you a specific answer. My memory's not as good as it should be."

His political managers tried to depict the incident as a case in which Pell had not properly understood the question. But Pell, sipping coffee on his terrace, is unapologetic. "My memory is not as sharp but my judgment is a lot better," he says. "And you get hired for your judgment, not to be a Quiz Kid."

Explaining his refusal to meet Schneider in a third debate, he is similarly unorthodox. He didn't want another debate, he said, because "I'm perfectly capable of shooting myself in the foot."

Pell's refusal to fight has made it extremely awkward for Schneider, a 43-year-old veteran of 10 years in the House, to find a rationale for replacing him in the Senate. Both are almost universally known in this tiny state and both are extremely popular, with approval ratings in the 70 to 80 percent range. And they have no sharp disagreements on cutting issues.

But, because they are so well regarded, Schneider would be taking an enormous risk if she used the kind of attack commercials that everyone else is using this year. The result is that she is reduced to oblique suggestions that Pell may be over the hill. Her commercials argue for "generational change" and she tells voters, "Think about your future. This is a six-year term." The times, she says, demand "someone who is a fighter" and someone who takes "a hands-on approach" to serving in the Senate.

The core of her argument is that a senator must be not only a player in national affairs but a strong advocate of constituents' interests. She likes to cite, for example, conferences she has arranged to help businesses in the state increase their profits by saving water, reducing their use of energy and changing employee health plans.

As for Pell, she says, "They know he votes right but what else does he do?"

Schneider is also frustrated by what she sees as a great disparity between the esteem in which Pell is held at home and the way he is regarded in Washington, where he has not been considered an influential figure and is sometimes derided as "Still-born Pell" because he has appeared to be vague and absent-minded. But Schneider cannot make that case to voters who have elected him with huge margins for 30 years.

The Pell campaign has made it even more difficult by running what political operatives call an "inoculation" ad -- meaning one designed to insulate the candidate from what may lie ahead. This 30-second commercial shows putative voters talking about how they deplore negative campaigning and how it won't work (( against Pell. Although Schneider is never mentioned or specifically accused, the spot shows one woman saying, "Her negative campaigning is going to backfire."

With the election less than a month away, polls show Pell with a comfortable lead of at least 10 percent. But Schneider is a vigorous and popular politician herself and it would be reasonable to expect the race to tighten. Meanwhile, however, the two candidates for the Senate in Rhode Island are conducting one of the few civil campaigns of 1990.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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