Dem hopefuls fret over specter of Jesse Jackson On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

September 25, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- WHILE party chairman Ron Brown publicly rejoiced at last weekend's Democratic National Committee meeting here over the sudden outbreak of 1992 presidential candidacies, he stuck to his hope that the contenders would get the Democratic nomination competition over quickly and bloodlessly, so the party could proceed early ot challenging President Bush.

Brown and DNC political director Paul Tully spent considerable time arguing that Bush can be beaten on domestic issues provided the Democratic nominee and the party take the fight to him early enough and with the sort of campaign targeting that the Republicans have used so effectively.

Tully noted that the GOP raised two thirds of its money to support the Bush candidacy before the Republican convention in 1988 and spent more than $1 million in polling to determine the most efficient targeting for the fall campaign before Bush was even nominated. Meanwhile, he recalled, the Democrats thrashed their way through the primaries without much thought to the general election. "They were in an implementation mode," Tully said. "We were in a creation mode," and that's why prospective nominee Michael Dukakis' 17-point lead in the polls soon vanished under the onslaught on Bush negative ads based on early research.

Brown assured the DNC members that "we are determined to learn from our past mistakes." Instead of using the convention as "a healing process" to bind up primary election wounds, he said, the party is developing a general-election strategy now, so that the eventual nominee can hit the ground running -- well before the convention, Brown hopes.

Enter, however, Jesse Jackson. In 1988, Jackson's ability and willingness to maintain his candidacy right into the Democratic convention kept Dukakis occupied and distracted from the fall campaign well into the summer. With Jackson now "seriously considering" a re-run in 1992, Brown and others on the DNC are clearly concerned that he might do the same again, threatening Brown's plans for an early end to the primary competition. Unlike other candidates who need money to stay in contention, Jackson's core constituency of black voters and his high public recognition can enable him to maintain a candidacy on a much lower campaign budget.

Jackson was a late added starter to the parade of declared and potential candidates addressing the weekend party meeting, and Brown pointedly expressed his hope that he would make up his mind about running "sooner rather than later." Brown did not say so, but it doesn't take a mind-reader to figure that he'd prefer Jackson, for whom he was convention manager in 1988, would go fishing this time around.

Other DNC members acknowledged concern that a Jackson candidacy might undercut the objective of an early decision on the nominee. "If he runs," Don Fowler of South Carolina said, "it would probably be a delaying factor on identifying the nominee, but I don't think that would tie it up until the convention." Larry Longley of Wisconsin suggested, however, that even without Jackson "the ingredients are there for a late decision," with a large field and a late start in the campaign. But Brown professed confidence that one or two of the candidates might "take off like a rocket" in the early primaries and nail down the nomination early.

One Midwestern state chairman was not so hopeful. Another Jackson candidacy, he said, "would take the focus off the other candidates and prevent us from coming to the convention with a national campaign in place, and I don't know what you do about it."

As in the past, many Democrats are happy to have Jackson as a toiler in the vineyards, but not as the wine master. James Ruvolo, the former Ohio party chairman, said: "He brings a level of excitement and enthusiasm, and that's good. But he obviously turns some voters off, and that's bad." Ruvolo expressed the hope that the crop of new faces finally surfacing will coax voters away from previous candidates like Jackson.

But Jackson is not the type to let himself be cast aside, especially in the face of another black candidate, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, contesting him for political leadership among black Americans. And Jackson isn't likely to concern himself, if he decides to run, that Brown's hopes for a short primary season will be threatened in the process.

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