Dems think '92 hopefuls are coming out of hiding On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 21, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. — NEW HAMPSHIRE Democrats just had a good weekend. Nobody figured out how to defeat President Bush in six easy steps or even how to win the governorship or a Senate seat. But there were sightings of three potential Democratic nominees, and reports of a fourth on the way.

At the party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, the speakers were former Sen. Paul Tsongas, an avowed candidate, and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who says he isn't running in 1992 but -- who knows? -- might be persuaded. Meanwhile, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, an avowed tester of the waters, was meeting with party and interest groups from Rye to Concord to Berlin. And the word circulated among the activists that Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa would be here next month.

The Democratic Party, it would appear, is going to have a presidential primary in New Hampshire next year after all.

The relief among the New Hampshire Democrats is palpable -- and not because of the old canard about how the state's economy needs scores of reporters running up bar bills at the Wayfarer. Instead, it is a relief that at least some Democrats with national stature are no longer behaving as if Bush were an unassailable political icon.

The silence until now, says Joe Keefe, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, "has been embarrassing." Or, as 1990 gubernatorial candidate Joe Grandmaison put it, "It's been more a sense of frustration that nobody (in Washington) has been saying anything."

There never has been any reason the primary campaign here had to last a full year or perhaps two. As television has become increasingly dominant in politics, the time-consuming organizational work has become less significant. There are only 3,000 to 4,000 genuine activists in each party in this state, so six or seven months would be more than adequate to reach them.

But the reluctance of Democratic candidates to commit themselves here early this year has never seemed to be prudent political planning so much as a reflection of a party without ideas or the leaders to express them. With the Keefes and Grandmaisons, that is a sorry state indeed.

So it is not surprising when activists are so quick to embrace a Jay Rockefeller or a Tom Harkin. They don't know much about either one of them here, but they are live candidates willing to put themselves on the line. The least they deserve is a hearing.

Thus, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner drew 450, compared to 68 two years ago, and the following morning 40 of the most active of the activists crowded into Grandmaison's living room to get a reading on Rockefeller. Harkin, who couldn't have gotten arrested here a month ago, is suddenly a hot topic because he is talking about running and is rumored to be a liberal and maybe even a populist.

No one can predict now whether the New Hampshire primary next Feb. 25 will be a significant factor in 1992 politics. If Harkin runs, some candidates may skip the Feb. 17 Iowa caucuses and make New Hampshire once again the place where the pecking order is established among Democrats rather than, as has been the case lately, sort of the semi-finals. On the other hand, if California moves its primary up to March 3, once again a realistic scenario, New Hampshire might either be dwarfed into insignificance or an important prelude.

Some will argue that New Hampshire always has enjoyed too much clout in presidential politics. According to the old familiar arguments, the state is too small, too white and too Republican to be a fair test of anything.

But political activists, by definition, should be important influences in the affairs of both parties. They are the ones who do the work and pay close attention to both the system and the candidates. They base their allegiances on something more substantial than a slogan or an image on a television screen. And those here have been puzzled at the apparent equanimity with which their national leaders have accepted the picture of George Bush as a figure beyond challenge.

Now that is suddenly changing. Paul Tsongas is here talking about radical changes that are needed to restore and sustain the nation's economic health. Jay Rockefeller is down the street saying Bush has failed to confront such basic domestic problems as the lack of adequate health care. Tom Harkin is coming to town. Can Mario Cuomo and Al Gore and Dick Gephardt be far behind?

As Chris Spirou, the ebullient Democratic state chairman, is saying these days, "It's happening, it's happening."

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