The presidential campaign: high costs of starting late On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

September 10, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- SOME POTENTIAL supporters of Sen. Bob Kerrey's presidential campaign have been advising the Nebraska Democrat to challenge Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa in his home-state precinct caucuses next February. Their theory is that Harkin is not universally admired and that Kerrey, as the sentor from neighboring state, might be able to score the kind of upset that could propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination.

The political wisdom of that advice is questionable. Although it is true that voters in western Iowa watch television beamed from Omaha stations, most of Iowa's population lies in the central and eastern sections. Moreover, a caucus format that obliges voters to declare their choices openly obviously reinforces the position of a home-state senator.

But the critical question about such a Kerrey strategy is whether the odds on success would be good enough to justify spending the $1 million or so it would cost to compete in Iowa. It is becoming increasingly clear that the late start of the Democratic campaign is going to have a significant effect on how campaigns are financed and that the money issue, in turn, is likely to dictate strategy.

The money problem for the Democrats is being compounded by several factors. One clearly is the parlous condition of the economy. Another is the dominant position of President Bush in opinion polls, the kind of thing that discourages contributors who like to hedge their bets. But the most important may be that even the Democrats who make up the first rank -- Kerrey, Harkin and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas -- are essentially so obscure that it will be extremely difficult for them to raise the money needed to compete at the level of previous campaigns.

At this time four years ago the conventional wisdom seemed to be that a candidate who could raise $5 million or so by the opening of the election year could manage once he

received his federal matching funds. Michael Dukakis, with his ties to the Greek community, raised twice that much, but none of the others raised $5 million although they worked at it all through 1987. Given that history, it is probably unreasonable to expect any of the candidates in the field now to raise much more than $3 million by Jan. 1. So the hazard of investing $1 million in Iowa is obvious.

The length of the last two campaigns was dictated primarily by federal election law that makes contributions raised for a full year before the election year eligible for matching. But the opportunity was frittered away by the Democrats. The money raised in 1983 and 1987 was largely spent before the election year itself, and not always to good purpose. Walter Mondale, for example, spent more than $500,000 on a straw vote in Maine late in 1987 that had nothing to do with the outcome of the caucuses in the state three months later. But the point is that the candidates, nonetheless, were able to raise enough to have the luxury of several strategic options.

This time, by contrast, political logic points to a heavy concentration on the first primary in New Hampshire eight days after the Iowa caucuses. The candidate who emerges as the perceived winner there will find money pouring into his campaign within 24 hours; the others probably will find themselves competing in the Super Tuesday primaries three weeks later without the resources to run full-scale campaigns.

The late start also puts these Democrats at disadvantages in other ways. Despite their many blunders in the early going, the Democratic candidates of 1984 and 1988 used the preliminaries of 1983 and 1987 to get some of the kinks out of their campaigns and to sharpen their messages without having to fear that a single stumble might wipe them out. But Clinton, Harkin and Kerrey will be under intensive scrutiny from the moment they declare their candidacies later this month. And, inevitably, they will be forced to spend far more time on fund-raising than they might like to devote to it when they are trying to make themselves known to the electorate at large.

There is much to be said for a campaign shorter than the marathons of the last several presidential cycles. Most of the voters don't pay any attention in the early stages, anyway, and both money and effort are wasted, even in primary states. But the Democrats who are preparing to run from a standing start only five months before the caucuses and primaries are facing imposing demands.

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