Democrats struggling to find a winning image On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Wicover

November 05, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Wicover

Manchester N.H. LARRY RADWAY, a former state Democratic chairman, is still undecided on whom to support for the 1992 presidential nomination. The same is true of Sylvia Chaplain, who usually can be found in the camp of the most liberal candidate. Jeanne Shaheen, one of the state's most effective organizers,is also uncommitted now.So are dozens of other less prominent party activist who were among the 2,000 who gathered here for the Democratic state convention the other day.

In some cases, it may be a matter of waiting for a decision from Mario Cuomo. But Cuomo aside, it is also clear that three months before the first presidential primary here Feb. 18, many Democrats are not entirely comfortable with the choices they are being offered.

Nor did the cattle show here do much to make the decisions easier. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa did his usual populist number, shedding his jacket, turning back his cuffs and assailing President Bush and all things Republican with characteristic vigor. When Bush tried to cut federal fuel assistance 35 percent, Harkin related, the issue came to his subcommittee. "I said, 'Nuts to you, George Bush,' and we put the money back in," he told cheering Democrats.

PTC Not to be outdone, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas delivered an 18-minute red-faced, arm-waving assault on "the stupid economic policies" of the Bush administration that the Democratic choir could applaud without restraint. The third of the ostensible "first tier" of Democrats, Sen. Bob Kerrey of

Nebraska, could not match either the bombast or flourish of Harkin and Clinton. But he did demonstrate that he could command an attentive hearing from the Democrats assembled in a cavernous National Guard armory. And he does have impressive local sponsors.

But the questions being raised in conversations on the floor make it plain that even these first-tier candidates -- let alone the "second tier" of Paul Tsongas, Doug Wilder and Jerry Brown -- have miles to go before they can become convincing in the role of challenger to an incumbent Republican president.

This problem is particularly striking because Democrats here are much more anxious to make a choice than they were last summer, when the candidates first began making their rounds, or just a few weeks ago, when Clinton and Kerrey joined Harkin and Tsongas as active candidates. For one thing, George Bush now appears genuinely vulnerable; the protective coating of the Persian Gulf war has been stripped away. For another, the New (( Hampshire economy is so distressed these Democrats are hearing the sounds of political revolution all around them. There is great resonance in the complaint that Bush is spending too much attention on foreign problems and failing to, as Wilder's slogan puts it, "Put America First."

But, for some of them, Harkin is too much the throwback liberal reminder of George McGovern and Walter Mondale. The questions about Clinton persist. Is there something in his personal history that might blow up his candidacy? Is his insistence that welfare recipients accept "personal responsibility" and go to work a code for a new Democratic conservatism? And what about Kerrey's widely heralded charisma? When is it going to show itself?

At one level, it is unrealistic to expect too much of these candidates at this point. All of them started much later than has been the practice in the last several primaries. And each of them already has shown the ability to enlist some ring-wise local supporters and to set up the beginnings of more-than-adequate organizational frameworks. Tsongas, who has done the most campaigning here, is credited with the strongest organization, but the others are not that far behind.

The core of the problem is what it has been all along -- that these candidates are not nationally known figures who automatically qualify for that circle of American politicians voters see as potential candidates for the national ticket. They badly need the exposure that can come only from a dozen events like this convention and the local television forum that preceded it.

The Democrats who gathered here are no longer asking tentatively, even fearfully, whether it is even possible to defeat George Bush. Instead, they are asking themselves if any of the candidates now in the field can defeat him. And the answer won't be clear for several months.

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