Clinton's Fla. victory is only a blip His win in a straw poll, however, shows that he can play the game.

December 16, 1991|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Evening Sun Staff

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. JHC B — LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Gov. Bill Clinton's triumph in the Florida straw poll and $1 in cash will buy him a cup of coffee here at Disney World, but that's about all. By the time any serious voting begins in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, this media event will be long forgotten.

But Clinton's success -- he captured 54 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Sen. Tom Harkin and 10 for Sen. Bob Kerrey -- does add a little new impetus to the momentum he has been gaining with the political activists who are the only ones paying close attention these days.

The most important thing for the Arkansas governor was, of course, that he avoided the embarrassment of a defeat that would have been especially damaging in a Southern state where he is supposed to be strongest.

But there were positive aspects, as well. Clinton has shown, for one thing, that he has an organization capable of delivering the goods in such a situation, albeit at an expense that far outweighed the intrinsic importance of the event. To those same activists, it is important that a candidate prove he knows how to play the game.

Perhaps more important, Clinton's victory suggests that he is capable of reaching beyond a narrow base of conservative and Southern Democrats in this campaign. Although Florida is surely southern enough, it is a state quite different from Arkansas or any others in the Cotton South. And the 2,350 delegates to the state convention were far more liberal a group than you find in most Southern states.

The clear loser was Harkin, who began with a base in organized labor, about one-fifth of the delegates, and a few committed liberals from south Florida but added little to that core. The Iowa Democrat ran a campaign every bit as intensive as Clinton's but markedly less successful, thus raising new questions about whether Harkin's old-fashioned populist rhetoric is marketable this year.

Kerrey's position as an also-ran was forecast by his decision a few weeks ago not to compete with Clinton and Harkin in using full-time staff members, extensive mailings of literature and videotapes and elaborate whip systems to turn out his support. And by many reckonings among the delegates who gathered here this weekend, the Nebraska Democrat scored some points by delivering a far more compelling speech than he has been giving in New Hampshire and elsewhere in the last few weeks -- one that combined red-meat attacks on President Bush with a more coherent exposition of Kerrey's own thinking about where he would take the country if he were elected next year.

In the long run, the straw vote will mean little. In 1984, the last campaign in which there were several such ballots, there was absolutely no correlation between who won the straw votes and who won the caucuses or primaries a few months later. Gary Hart finished a distant also-ran here in late 1983, behind both former Florida Gov. Reubin O'D. Askew and Walter F. Mondale, but won the state's primary by a comfortable margin.

The one argument that could be made for a straw vote this year -- as well as for more debates like the one on NBC last night -- is that the late start for the campaign has put much more pressure on the candidates to find ways to get some exposure, to party activists and the press and public at large. At the least, Clinton now can say he has won the only game they have played when anyone was keeping score.

What this should mean, among other things, is a better climate in which to raise money. Clinton already has been gaining steam in fund-raising on the strength of press reports about his strong performance on the campaign trail. His campaign has brought in $700,000-plus in each of the last two weeks, probably enough to put him in the best financial position of the active players.

The small indications before the convention here that the Arkansas Democrat was gaining a little speed were obvious in the small digs his rivals took at him in speeches here the day before the vote. Harkin, for example, made a point of saying he was "a national candidate" and not a "regional candidate" -- thus suggesting Clinton is only the Southern favorite.

Clinton showed his own combative side, pointing out that the last two times the Democrats nominated candidates some considered "not liberal enough" were when they chose John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

One of the most striking aspects of the convention, however, had nothing to do with the straw vote's winners and losers. It was the hostility expressed by so many delegates toward Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York because of his long soul-searching about whether to run. Some of that anger was clearly caused by the fact he rejected a chance to play a role in this convention, but it seemed to go far beyond that as delegates hissed and booed every time his name was mentioned as having received scattered votes.

Clinton says the result was "just the first step" in a long march through the contest for the nomination. But at least it was a step, rather than a stumble.

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