Democrats' hired gun has political sights on Bush

November 07, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA -- Take note of this name: James Carville, also known as "The Ragin' Cajun." You -- and George Bush -- may be hearing a lot more of him next year.

He was the hired political gun behind Democrat Harris Wofford's astonishing underdog defeat Tuesday of former Republican Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh in the Pennsylvania Senate race, and, if he gets his way, his next target will be the president.

A lean, mean lawyer from Louisiana, Mr. Carville, 47, has built a reputation during the Reagan-Bush years of being a political giant killer. Since 1984, he has not lost a campaign for the Democrats.

He helped put Robert P. Casey into the Pennsylvania governor's office in 1986, reversing the candidate's three earlier defeats in 1966, 1970 and 1978, and got him re-elected in 1990; he helped put Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson into office in Kentucky in 1987 after starting the campaign without "a percentage point" in the polls; he engineered victory for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg in New Jersey in 1988 over the GOP's premier "resume" senatorial candidate of that year, former Heisman Trophy winner, Rhodes Scholar and financial tyro Pete Dawkins; and last year he steered Zell Miller through a left-right Democratic primary challenge into the governor's office in Georgia.

What the late Lee Atwater did for the Republicans in 1988 by giving the Bush campaign a razor-sharp edge, the nation an introduction to rapist Willie Horton, and dirty campaign tactics a new dimension, Mr. Carville would now like to do for the Democrats in 1992: ruthlessly go for the opposition's jugular.

"Fightin's fightin'," he said in a drawl that has the sound of marbles rolling around his mouth. "It's hard to score when you are playing defense. Just get your butt on the offensive and stay there."

Mr. Carville, who relies on old-fashioned campaign tactics rather than high-tech analyses, already has an offensive strategy for the next presidential campaign: make Mr. Bush "choose between the two things nearest and dearest to him," his friends and his popularity.

He would urge the Democrats to pass both a tax cut and parental-leave legislation, forcing Mr. Bush to veto the bills and risk popular reaction in an election year or pass them and disillusion his conservative constituency.

"Basically, the issues that drive 1992 are the issues that divide George Bush from his friends," he said. "Clearly, what the Democrats have to do is make him choose. Domestically, George Bush hates to decide."

Politically, he is encouraged by Mr. Bush's enthusiasm for a cut in the capital gains tax rate.

"That someone can sit there and tell a country of shrinking income, exploding health costs, a competitive balance that is not in our direction, two people having to work in a family, and say what we need is another tax break for rich people, is just to me beyond comprehension," he said. "Let them push it."

Mr. Carville came to political consultancy by way of law practice. He explained: "I literally said to myself, 'If I had to have a lawyer, I would not hire me.' I had to do something else."

He chose to become a campaign professional. In his first election in 1979, his candidate came in "dead last," and Mr. Carville went on to lose two more campaigns in 1982 and 1984.

He is not fussy about whom he represents.

"I am a businessman," he said. "If someone is not a bigot, not a crook and is a Democrat, I will sit down and talk to them. It's a pretty minimal standard."

His rejection of bigotry has him fired up against the candidacy of David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader, for governor in his native Louisiana. Mr. Carville has offered his services to the Democratic candidate, former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

"I'll stick posters, knock on doors," he said. "This is the worst thing I have seen in my life. This is a question of survival for my state. It is unacceptable that this man has any chance at all to be governor of my state."

When Mr. Carville arrived in Pennsylvania, it didn't seem that Harris Wofford had a chance of being elected senator. He was 44 percentage points behind former Governor Thornburgh, who resigned as U.S. attorney general to seek the Senate seat Mr. Wofford was temporarily filling after the plane-crash death of Sen. John Heinz in April.

"This was the only race going on. This is what I do for a living," he recalled in an interview in the chaotic Wofford campaign office here.

"You don't see any computers in here," said the jeans-clad strategist, his feet on a desk. "That's not what wins races.

"What wins races is saying something to people that shows you are the type of politician who understands what they are going through in their lives, and you want to try to address some of their concerns.

L "The idea is to say something relevant and to say it often."

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