Democrat's stretch drive in Pa. could give party a horse to ride in '92

November 02, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA -- What Harris Wofford is doing to Richard L. Thornburgh these days is the stuff of presidential nightmares.

The little-known Democrat is poised to knock off a big-name Republican in the sort of political David-and-Goliath scenario that must haunt the worst dreams of George Bush.

Mr. Wofford has overcome a 44-percentage-point lead in the polls by Mr. Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general, to make Tuesday's U.S. Senate race too close to call.

Win or lose, he already has produced one major achievement: His campaign is helping to shape the national political debate for 1992. He has presented Democrats with a slate of issues that could get them out of their decade-long doldrums -- "middle-class concerns," such as jobs, health care, taxes and the environment.

"Certainly, it's a laboratory for some issues that Democrats might effectively use, and they certainly will if Wofford comes close or actually wins," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Harrisburg.

Mr. Wofford's campaign has largely been shaped by James Carville, an aggressive strategist from Louisiana who is known as "the ragin' Cajun" and who, as a political consultant, boasts a string of long-odds gubernatorial victories.

"The last two ideas I can remember a Democratic presidential candidate having were 'Come home from Vietnam' and 'Raise taxes,' " Mr. Carville said.

"Hopefully, in 1992 the Democratic candidates will talk about what is happening to the middle class, health care, American competitiveness," he said. "If they do that in an interesting way, they will be successful."

Mr. Wofford describes it a little differently: "I am being turned into a messenger from Pennsylvania to tell Washington it is looking at things upside-down.

"I think the message to the country which the Democrats ought to take is that it is time to take care of our own people, our own problems and with the will, with the energy and with the imagination which we apply to overseas challenges."

Perhaps as unsettling to Mr. Bush's political peace of mind is another portent from the campaign: Mr. Thornburgh stands accused of lacking precise policies, just as Mr. Bush's critics charge him with lacking a domestic agenda.

"There is virtually no specific plan or program from the Thornburgh camp," Mr. Madonna said. "His strategy has been: 'I have a 40-point lead. I am well-known. I was a popular governor. Trust me. I'll represent Pennsylvania well.' "

That has enabled Mr. Wofford to focus anti-Washington sentiment on Mr. Thornburgh's long record and high profile, although he himself is the incumbent senator, a fact two out of three Pennsylvania voters were unaware of when the campaign began in August after Mr. Thornburgh resigned as attorney general.

Mr. Wofford, state secretary of labor at the time, was appointed to the Senate in May by Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey to replace John Heinz, a Republican senator who was killed in a plane crash in April.

Mr. Thornburgh has criticized Mr. Wofford's "invisible incumbent" approach, saying the senator has "run away from his record."

The Wofford record, the Republican reminds voters, includes being part of the state administration that imposed the highest tax increase in state history, opposing U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf war and voting against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

"In my opinion, he is a tax-and-spend liberal whose role model in the U.S. Senate is Ted Kennedy," Mr. Thornburgh told supporters.

The Wofford camp counters that Mr. Thornburgh's own record as attorney general was "abysmal" and that, lacking programs of his own, he has seized on theirs.

As the contest has tightened, the tactics have become increasingly negative. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial cartoon showing a mud-covered Mr. Wofford beside a mudslinging Mr. Thornburgh who was saying, "My opponent appears to be a sleaze ball."

Mr. Thornburgh defends his tactics, saying, "I will give as good as I get. I reserve the right to do that. Dick Thornburgh is no patsy."

A Kennedy-style liberal

Harris Wofford is an unlikely standard-bearer for the Democrats in the 1990s. He is an unreconstructed, 1960s-style Kennedy liberal, a former adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an early leader in the Peace Corps.

"There has been a far falling-off from the Washington of John F. Kennedy that I went to [as special assistant to the president]," Mr. Wofford said. "I see Washington today as full of complacent people who have been there too long."

Driving his campaign is a conviction that the two mainstream parties have become stratified -- the Republicans with the rich and the Democrats with the poor -- leaving the middle class neglected.

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