A Rockefeller may become Dems' white knight On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

CLEVELAND — Cleveland

THE DEMOCRATIC Leadership Council convened several hundred delegates here to blather about positions on issues they believe might change the image of their party. But their deliberations were upstaged in a minute by Sen. Jay Rockefeller's almost offhand declaration that he is now considering a run for the party's presidential nomination.

"The door is open," said Rockefeller, "I'm looking."

The episode was a classic example of how strong personalities can override hot air in defining a political equation. Although Rockefeller has by no means committed himself to a campaign, his clear signal has instantly changed the political landscape. The Democratic Party now has a heavyweight who seems to be looking positively at the prospect of challenging President Bush.

There is some irony in the fact that Rockefeller chose a convention of the DLC to come out of the closet. Although his speech here was warmly received, the West Virginia Democrat is TC generally considered more liberal than the candidates with the most appeal to DLC leaders -- most notably Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. But Rockefeller does not have the image as a quintessential northeastern liberal that DLC leaders find so hard to swallow. He is not, in short, another Mario Cuomo.

Rockefeller's potential is difficult to assess. At 53, he has the credentials of two terms as governor before he was elected to the Senate seven years ago. He is a sometimes compelling speaker with a sharp, occasionally acerbic wit. He is forceful enough to be the kind of candidate who can, in street talk, "get into the face" of President Bush.

Perhaps equally important, however, is Rockefeller's well-established interest in an issue many political professionals believe may have strong potential in 1992 -- health care. He has used his active identification with the issue as the out-front justification for several trips around the country on which he obviously has been testing his own potential as well.

At the moment, however, Rockefeller's potential may be less important than the effect the signal of active interest will have on a Democratic Party that has appeared cowed by President Bush's high approval ratings and bleeding from the wounds of bickering over the party's directions. The only declared candidate has been Paul Tsongas, the former senator from Massachusetts who has been highly respected for his thoughtfulness but lightly regarded as a candidate capable of winning the nomination.

The only other Democrats sending positive signals of interest have been Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and 1972 nominee George S. McGovern, neither of whom have been considered realistic prospects for the nomination. Meanwhile, except for Gore and Cuomo, other potential candidates with the right political pedigrees have been saying they don't intend to run in 1992.

So Rockefeller's announcement that he has changed his mind and will consider a run in 1992 is significant for the way it can change the atmosphere within the Democratic Party. Here is a candidate with obvious long-term prospects who may not play the cozy game of waiting for 1996 and an ostensibly better opportunity.

In practical terms, the Rockefeller signal heightens the pressure on other serious players to make their moves. Because there has been such a vacuum, there are legions of Democratic activists who will be wanting to enlist with the first serious candidate who steps to the front and meets their ideological specifications.

The most likely would appear to be Gore and Cuomo, who have carefully avoided taking themselves out of the 1992 picture. But each has problems. Gore is credited with having positioned himself effectively in the last few months, but he has not -- and perhaps cannot -- dispel reservations about him among liberals dating from the last campaign. Cuomo, another northeastern ethnic, is plain poison to Southern conservatives who see him as another Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis frightening away white voters.

Rockefeller is probably no less liberal, but there is no clear image of him comparable to that Cuomo already has acquired. Although the name is obviously familiar -- he is the nephew of the late Nelson A. Rockefeller -- he has a clean slate on which to define himself for most voters.

Right now, of course, Rockefeller is not even committed to run. But just the fact he is openly weighing a campaign has dramatically altered the political scene.

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