Pa. voters send message to Bush Thornburgh's defeat boosts 'anti' strategy

November 06, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford's election to a full term from Pennsylvania over former GOP Gov. Richard Thornburgh is a clear indication to his party's 1992 presidential candidates that they are on the right track in hammering President Bush as a Washington insider who neglects the economy and unmet domestic needs.

Wofford's success in painting his GOP opponent as just such an insider based on his three years as attorney general in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and his strenuous advocacy of national health insurance for Americans, gave the Senate race a national character that probably will be part of a blueprint for the Democrats' challenge to Bush next year.

Thornburgh's efforts to cash in on his record as governor from 1981 to 1988 fell flat against Wofford, who managed, even though he is the incumbent, to turn widespread public disaffection with Washington against his GOP opponent.

(Wofford was appointed by Democratic Gov. Bob Casey last May after the death of GOP Sen. John Heinz.)

Thornburgh, in reminding voters that he served as chairman of Bush's domestic policy council, played into Wofford's hands. He unrelentingly assaulted the GOP administration as preoccupied with foreign policy over domestic concerns, especially health care. Wofford, the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania in 23 years, also took a page from the campaign manual of his party's presidential candidates. He called for tax cuts for middle-class Pennsylvanians and reform of current health care programs to assure universal coverage. Thornburgh's response, that Wofford in saying that universal health coverage could be achieved without tax increases was asking voters to believe in "the health-care fairy," likewise fell flat. Thornburgh's own 11th-hour release of a 14-point health-care plan that relies on private insurance carriers smacked of desperation.

Although Wofford aimed his campaign rhetoric at Thornburgh as a member of the Bush administration, he indirectly took shots at Bush for his first-term focus on foreign affairs. "At a time when government seems to care about everyone in the world but us," one Wofford television ad said, "Harris Wofford says it's time for America to take care of Americans again. It's time to take care of our own."

While Wofford's success encourages the Democrats for 1992 and concerns the Republicans, local circumstances that may not apply across the country a year from now cannot be dismissed. Unemployment in Pennsylvania, at 6.8 percent, is slightly higher than the U.S. average, and the state continues to be plagued by the disintegration of Rust Belt heavy industry.

Also, the conduct of foreign policy -- Bush's strong suit -- was not an issue, except in Wofford's call for America to look inward. And theability of this low-key former college professor to present himself as a non-politician may be more difficult for most of the Democratic presidential candidates, themselves established politicians.

Still, Wofford's dramatic victory -- he trailed Thornburgh by more than 40 percentage points in some polls in early September -- cannot fail but give heart to the Democratic hopefuls, who see in other polling data slippage in Bush's popularity, particularly in his handling of the economy.

One Democrat who predictably will be examining the Wofford victory is New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who is publicly soul-searching over joining the field. For a long time, Democrats were looking to Cuomo as their only hope in 1992. The Pennsylvania vote may pressure him further.

Last month, Thornburgh's campaign manager, Michele Davis, characterized the Wofford strategy as "a guinea pig" for the Democrats' national campaign next year. Wofford's chief strategist, James Carville, didn't deny it. And while it is certainly true that Dick Thornburgh is not George Bush, the president's Democratic challengers can be counted on to embrace the strategy that beat Thornburgh.

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