With candidates in sight at last, Dems' pulse quickens

On Politics Today

September 24, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- WHEN CHAIRMAN Ron Brown introduced seven declared and potential presidential candidates to last weekend's meeting of the Democratic National Committee here, and proclaimed the start of the 1992 campaign, the sense of relief in the hall was palpable.

All seven hopefuls spoke as if they really believed President Bush could be beaten next year, and the assembled faithful clearly wanted to believe it too, whatever the polls say.

They cheered and applauded each of the seven, starting with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa serving up the raw meat of liberal, anti-Bush rhetoric, and ending with the familiar, impassioned plea of Jesse Jackson for the party to put its stated concern for the oppressed into action as he repeatedly does.

In between, the committee members heard the less bombastic voices of former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Rep. David McCurdy of Oklahoma and former Mayor Larry Agran of Irvine, Calif. Each had his own formula for lifting the party out of its doldrums.

Tsongas continued his pro-business pitch, arguing for a jobs-generating economic policy that recognizes that "no goose, golden egg." Brown, sounding like a circuit-riding preacher, decried the dominance of money in the electoral process.

McCurdy, an earnest young flaming moderate, in a clear swipe at Harkin, told the party to move past liberalism. "Those in our party who preach the old-time liberal religion," he intoned, "will please the crowd but find that the pews are empty."

Agran, the longest of longshots, pleaded for more attention for America's troubled cities.

He was echoed in private conver sations by Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, who tantalizingly said he favors "a mayor in the White House" but dodged questions about entering the race himself.

That left Clinton. After 11 years as a governor, he is a seasoned veteran at only 45, with a strong track record of dealing with the domestic problems all the Democrats accuse Bush of ignoring.

Invoking the names of John and Robert Kennedy, he delivered a crisp and rousing call for Democrats to draw up an action agenda on health care, child care and job opportunities, together with a call for sacrifice in the JFK fashion, or risk "losing the American dream."

The sudden epidemic of actual and possible White House hopefuls, after a long season of more prominent Democrats running and hiding from a challenge to Bush, inspired Ron Brown to new heights. He called the group of little-knowns on the national scene (Harkin, Tsongas, Clinton, McCurdy, Agran) and two two-time presidential losers (Jackson, Brown) "a very impressive field by any standard." The DNC members didn't argue.

Many, in fact, expressed weariness at the one Democrat they had for months longed for, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. They were ready to accept his declarations of non-interest in running. Maynard Jackson curtly observed of Cuomo's position that he's needed in New York: "It's a matter of priorities, and he's chosen a different priority."

For all the demonstrated euphoria that the campaign has begun with a field of candidates at last, and for all Brown's stated assurances that the party is really unified and focused on Bush this time around, some fault lines could be detected.

No sooner had Harkin told the committee that he didn't look upon the other candidates "as my opponents, I look upon them as my allies in turning this country around," than McCurdy uttered his slap at him. And Clinton warned that the Democrats won't win "by being better at Bush-bashing," another Harkin specialty, but will need a positive agenda spelling out a credible alternative to the Republican incumbent.

Harkin's insistence that the Democrats have been right all along in spite of their losses in five of the last six presidential elections setbacks ran into Clinton's definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Still, party chairman Brown took heart in the fact that the field to a man is "change-oriented," though that is hardly a surprise in a party that is out and wants in. But finally having six or more Democrats willing to run is cause enough for the quickening of the party pulse that finally could be detected here over the weekend.

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