THE RACE for the Democratic presidential nomination is finally underway. Former Sen. Paul Tsongas (Mass.) has been joined by Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Bob Kerrey (Neb.), Govs. Doug Wilder (Va.) and Bill Clinton of (Ark.), and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is mulling over entering the race, and a few minor candidates are also in.
The conventional wisdom says that this field is the Democrats' second string. The starting lineup -- N.Y. Gov. Mario Cuomo; Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Al Gore and Sam Nunn; and the Senate and House majority leaders, George Mitchell and Richard Gephardt -- chose to sit on the bench.
But once again, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Whether due to pure luck or the timidity of their "starters," the Democratic contenders are perfectly matched for the angry, anti-incumbent mood of the electorate.
Most of the candidates are outsiders who are committed to changing government policy to benefit the people, not special interests. At the same time, most have sufficient experience to meet the "qualifications" test.
More important, most contenders are fresh thinkers who offer powerful critiques of George Bush's performance, and are crafting bold, challenging message likely to resonate with the voters.
For example, Harkin, who is running a boisterous, populist campaign, claims 17 years of service in the House and the Senate, while also pointing to a record as a maverick who never joined the "club" and fights for what he believes in. As someone who grew up "on the wrong side of the tracks," Harkin has a unique ability to connect with the "bread and butter" concerns of average American families.
This will blunt attacks on him as too liberal -- indeed, Harkin will demonstrate that populism makes traditional liberal/conservative stereotyping irrelevant to voters. He will have unexpectedly strong appeal to the middle class.
Brown, who ran the mini-nation of California for eight years in his own inimitable style, has the most intriguing message, a blistering attack on the current political system and its reliance on special interest money. Whether crafted behind the scenes by pollster Pat Caddell or a result of the natural evolution of
Brown's singular mind, this message taps into growing voter anger over the arrogance of incumbent office-holders. But even if Brown has the right message, is he the wrong messenger? He must overcome a flaky image.
Kerrey, with experience as governor and senator, may have the opposite problem. He is the most charismatic contender, combining glamour and all-American appeal as a Vietnam War hero and Debra Winger's former boyfriend. But if his announcement speech is any indication, his message needs work. His address focused on a vague call for a "new generation" of leadership, a pitch that hasn't worked since 1960 and was overrated then. This sounds like the many former Gary Hart staffers on his campaign are trying to recreate that failed effort. That would be unfortunate, because Kerrey, an iconoclast with an independent mind and the courage to speak it, deserves better.
Clinton has governed Arkansas since he was 6 except for a brief interlude during puberty (or so it seems). But how will he perform as a presidential candidate? Will we get the innovative, effective, liberal (yes, that's right) governor -- or will we get the bombastic, reactive ex-chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council? The former can win. The latter just offers a younger, warmed-over imitation of a Republican.
Only Wilder, while credible as an outsider, lacks experience, having been governor of Virginia for less than two years. What's worse, he has compiled a sorry record of slashing needed services and enforcing an anti-worker status quo. Indeed, Wilder demonstrates what results when you combine unbridled ambition with vindictiveness and a near-complete lack of any principles. The Chuck Robb feud and the despicable attacks on his former press secretary alone ought to scare away rational voters.
Tsongas is running as a "pro-business" Democrat. What that means is unclear, but while Tsongas may be a serious thinker, he's not a serious candidate.
If Jesse Jackson runs, he'll annihilate Wilder among African-American voters. After all, Jackson stands for something. However, look for many of the liberal white voters who backed him four years ago to support Harkin. It's hard to envision how Jackson could improve on his 1988 performance.
So for Democrats, the good news is that the 1992 contenders will confound the experts. One of them -- probably Harkin, Kerrey, Clinton or Brown -- will offer Bush a real race; and under the right circumstances with the right strategy, he can pull off an historic upset.
Victor Kamber is a Democratic politician consultant who heads the Kamber Group, a Washington public relations firm.