Democrats face lack of commitment Few will side early with a candidate

September 23, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

LOS ANGELES -- A CBS cameraman trained his lens tightly on Bill Clinton as the Democratic presidential contender courted delegates at a political gathering in California over the weekend.

After focusing in on the Arkansas governor's face for several minutes,the cameraman turned to a colleague.

"Which one is this?" he whispered.

It says something about how far the Democratic presidential candidates have to go when those assigned to report on them are in the dark about who is who. But even the men and women who make their living in politics are having a tough time figuring this one out.

In just a few months, hundreds of Democratic congressmen and senators will be chosen as some of the delegates to next summer's nationalconvention in New York City.

But Representative Sander Levin, D-Mich., says he doesn't know "a single member who's committed" yet to a candidate.

Seven announced or potential presidential contenders were on hand over the weekend to woo members of the Democratic National Committee at a two-day meeting in the baroque splendor of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Party officials, battered for months by bad news about how big-name Democrats were afraid to take on President Bush next year, used the occasion to proclaim, over and over, that the campaign had begun.

Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown went further. He insisted that Mr. Bush "can . . . and will" be defeated in 1992.

To support his claim, DNC strategists staged a 90-minute briefing for party leaders and the press, complete with an elaborate slide show designed to prove that Mr. Bush is more vulnerable than he looks and that 1988 nominee Michael S. Dukakis did better in losing than most people remember.

But the fact they had to conduct such a briefing at all may tell more about Democratic prospects than any statistics they presented.

Despite all the happy talk about beating Mr. Bush, reality kept creeping in around the edges. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, himself contemplating a third campaign for the nomination, described the 1992 hopefuls as those "who would dare to lead" the party.

In hotel corridors and bars, there was knowing chatter about the difficulty several presidential candidates are having trying to hire experienced managers to run their campaigns.

"There are a lot of people who will give advice," said one 1988 campaign veteran. "But nobody wants to give their life for this one."

The explanation, of course, can be found in polls that show Mr. Bush's approval running at high levels and in the consensus forecasts of economists who do not anticipate the sort of economic disaster that might cause the president's popularity to evaporate.

Although the election is still more than a year away, it wasn't too early for some Democrats to consider privately the nightmarish prospect of a 50-state Bush re-election landslide in 1992.

But politics is an unpredictable business, and some hard-nosed Democratic politicians believe the nomination may well turn out to be worth having, if only as a first step toward the 1996 race.

Just who the nominee might be remains as unanswerable as it was before the Democratic leaders began gathering in Southern California last week.

Not that those on hand didn't try to find portents in what happened here.

There was, for example, the battle of the buffets (won by Mr. Clinton, whose strawberry tarts impressed the "judges").

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's supporters bragged about the size of the late-night crowd at his reception in a hotel ballroom, but former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. one-upped him in the all-important populist category with his low-budget greeting for delegates in the vacant lobby of a nearby bank building, after business hours.

The climax came on Saturday, when each hopeful stepped to the microphone and addressed the full DNC, whose 413 members are expected to be the largest bloc of delegates at the convention. While most of the contenders were enthusiastically received, none seemed to strike an exceptional spark.

The West Coast event seemed to have reaffirmed the loose, informal pecking order among the candidates, as ranked by the handful of Democratic politicians and analysts paying attention at the moment.

The first tier was ranked as Mr.Harkin, Mr. Clinton and perhaps Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who preserved the mystery surrounding his candidacy by staying away.

In the second tier were Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Mr. Brown, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Representative David McCurdy of Oklahoma.

None of this matters much, of course, until voters start casting ballots in Democratic primaries and caucuses in the winter. As if to underscore that point, a poll released last week by ABC News showed that "No Opinion" is currently leading the Democratic field by a wide margin.

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