The big man rides again on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 16, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

BERLIN, Conn. -- At the Berlin Fair, Lowell Weicker is about as inconspicuous as an elephant in a telephone booth. He towers over the crowd on the midway, and most of them recognize him instantly. Although he is escorted by volunteers wearing blue "Weicker for Governor" T-shirts, he doesn't really need any beaters.

It's not surprising. Until he was upset in a Senate campaign two years ago, Weicker had spent 30 years in office -- four as first selectman (mayor) of Greenwich, six in the state legislature, two in the House, 18 in the Senate.

What is surprising is that, given such a history, a politician can run as an outsider challenging the system and politics as usual. But Weicker is running for governor as an independent -- as the candidate of what he named "A Connecticut Party" -- and holds a clear but by no means insurmountable lead in public opinion polls going into the final three weeks of the campaign.

In one sense, Weicker seems the ideal candidate to run an outsider campaign. In his three terms in the Senate, he earned a reputation as a loner and maverick often at odds with Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the White House and with party leaders in Congress. His running feud with the conservative Republican regulars in Connecticut reached the point in 1982 at which Prescott Bush Jr., brother of George Bush, mounted an abortive but nonetheless revealing challenge to him for the nomination. Weicker's loss to Democrat Joe Lieberman in 1988 could be traced at least in part to Republican defections.

Weicker says the decision to run for governor as an independent was based more on his unwillingness to go through another brawl inside the Republican Party than with any early recognition that this might be a year for the maverick outsider. "It had nothing to do with gauging the mood of the electorate," he says as his van rolls along the Merritt Parkway. "I didn't want some old lady pointing her finger at me and saying, 'Why did you vote for the Panama Canal treaty?' "

Once he decided to run as an independent, he adds, "It was literally like taking a millstone off my head. I never felt better in my life."

So far Weicker has had clear sailing. The most recent published polls show him with 35 to 42 percent of the vote with each of his opponents -- Republican Rep. John G. Rowland and Democratic Rep. Bruce Morrison -- with 20 to 25 percent each. But that leaves 20 to 25 percent of the electorate undecided, which raises some intriguing questions.

The most obvious is how anyone can be undecided about a politician as visible and noisy as Lowell Weicker has been for so long. The theory among political operatives in both parties is that if those voters haven't decided to support Weicker by now, they won't do so. By contrast, Rowland and Morrison each has represented only one-sixth of the state, so it is not surprising that it is taking them time and money to impress themselves on the electorate.

Weicker himself has a different explanation -- that there is an understandable caution among voters about electing an independent to govern their state. "Something's being presented to the electorate that they've never seen before," he points out. Moreover, there is little history of independents as state governors; the one recent example, James B. Longley in Maine in the 1970s, produced mixed results.

The outcome probably depends on which concerns of voters prove decisive Nov. 6. Weicker says the state's fiscal situation and economic troubles argue for radical solutions. "If times were good," he says, "there would be little reason to leave the comfortable cocoon of the two-party system." In radio spots targeted for each community, he tells voters: "We're in a recession and I'll do something about it."

But Stan Greenberg, a poll-taker for Morrison, says his data show Weicker slipping and the electorate becoming more polarized along party lines, in some measure because of the budget impasse in Washington. The key, he says, may be whether published polls show the race close enough so that partisan voters won't believe they are wasting their votes if they choose someone other than Weicker.

Right now Lowell Weicker is bigger than a bread box. But he has always been a center of controversy in Connecticut politics.

So the operative question -- and still an open one -- is whether voters will decide whether such strong medicine is needed.

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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