Wofford's wonder boy

Sandy Grady

November 08, 1991|By Sandy Grady

JAMES CARVILLE went to bed drunk and woke up a genius.

The raffish strategist of Harris Wofford's stunning 10-point victory over Dick Thornburgh in the U.S. Senate race -- the Political Earthquake of 1991 -- deserved a one-night blast.

Carville, an offbeat, workaholic rogue, not only invented the Wofford campaign that dazzled Pennsylvanians and struck fear in George Bush's heart. Following his dictum -- "never mess with fate" -- Carville had even worn the same underwear the last 10 campaign days.

Overnight, James Carville was reborn as the Michelangelo, Napoleon and Edison of politics, especially by Democratic presidential candidates who'd love for Carville to Woffordize their 1992 campaigns.

"I don't know why everybody's surprised," said Carville in a Lousiana gumbo growl. "Right candidate, right mood, mediocre opponent. If we'd lost, I'd have to rethink my whole damn life."

Come on, James, were you so cocky when Wofford was down 44 points?

"Almost. Look, any fool could sense people were scared and mad. I thought Wofford was the perfect guy -- Peace Corps type, internationalist -- to deliver the message, 'Hey, America, we've got to take care of our own.' The other guy (Thornburgh) jetted in for a coronation.

"So we had one hurdle: Would people believe Harris Wofford wasn't a fluke, an egghead, but the real thing?

"The break came in the Philadelphia debate. When people saw Harris kick Thornburgh's ass on television, he passed the reality check. Newspaper endorsements helped. People began to believe Harris -- 'This guy's no Washington big shot, he's real, maybe he'll help us out of this mess.' "

But the dimensions of Wofford's crushing defeat of Thornburgh, clearly a metaphor for Bush, jolted Washington politicians. (Wofford won counties that were Republican bastions since FDR's era.) Now all political junkies debate the same riddle: Was Pennsylvania's rebellious 1991 mood a harbinger of a Democratic 1992 presidential triumph?

James Carville's answer won't comfort anybody.

"Democrats will make a tragic mistake if they think Pennsylvania was only a repudiation of George Bush," says Carville with a fierce glare. "Sure, Bush was a big symbol. But this was a slap at every Washington politician, Democrat and Republican -- 'Yo! you guys, wake up and pay attention to us.' "

I think Carville's on the money. There's an impatient fury with out-of-touch, big-shot pols at every level. (Republican anti-tax resentment in New Jersey was in the same pattern that elected Wofford.)

Suddenly old liberal-conservative labels don't count. Thornburgh smeared Wofford as a pinko lib on gun control, abortion, health care and the death penalty without scoring. Restless, cynical voters seem to hanker for anti-establishment outsiders, mavericks who aren't part of the Crowd That Made the Mess.

"It's a pox on both houses at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a worried incumbent.

Wofford, who should know, agrees: "The angry mood is not only addressed at Bush. People feel Washington politicians have no sense of urgency."

Strikingly, economic blues have turned sullen the Democratic middle class that for 11 years trusted Reagan-Bush voodoo. "Anger in Pennsylvania switched from blue collars to the white collars," said Republican consultant Eddie Mahe.

Bush seems baffled. The peripatetic president nixed his Asian trip. But he mutters that people want tax cuts, health care and an economic growth package. "It's a delicate situation," says the puzzled prez.

James Carville roars at the president's discomfort.

"I hope Bush never catches on," said Carville. "I hope he keeps flying to Rome, diddling around with vetoes, tinkering with his capital gains tax cuts for the rich. Bush got hit with a two-by-four in Pennsylvania but still doesn't get it."

So Carville sees a chance for '92 Democrats? "Only if they reassert themselves as the party of the middle class and populist economics."

Like a baseball free agent off a hot .350 season, Carville should be in demand by every Democratic '92 team. Kerrey, Harkin, Brown, Cuomo -- who'll sign up Carville, the whiz kid who blew away Thornburgh?

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