New Hampshire mystery: Harkin's low standing in polls On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

January 15, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Concord, N.H. - THE MOST intriguing mystery of the presidential primary campaign here at the moment is the case of Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The Iowa senator entered the Democratic primary competition with a splash last summer, enlisted some well-established party and union leaders and quickly began organizing. But two new opinion polls out this week show him with the support of less than 5 percent of New Hampshire Democrats, trailing far behind Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

It may be, of course, that the polls are meaningless because so few of those expected to vote in the Feb. 18 primary have yet focused on the campaign. The surveys show 40 percent of the voters undecided, and veterans of many campaigns here say it is likely that no more than 20 percent have made anything that might be called a firm decision on their choice.

Professionals in other campaigns agree with Kathi Rogers, Harkin's state campaign director, when she says, "Nobody was listening at all until the first of the year." It is also true that Harkin is the last of the four leading candidates to begin running the radio and television commercials that are an essential credential in establishing credibility.

Nonetheless, it cannot be overlooked that Clinton moved to the head of the parade before he went on the air with TV spots in the last week. By all measures, the Arkansas governor has enjoyed a conspicuously positive run in the news media.

Harkin has not enjoyed such good fortune. He finished a distant second to Clinton in a straw vote at the Florida Democratic state convention last month and he received only so-so marks for his performance in the first nationally televised debate among the Democratic candidates on NBC in December. His fund-raising has not been impressive, particularly compared to Clinton.

But the assumption about Harkin all along has been that his hard core of support among traditionally liberal regular Democrats would be enough in itself to make him a serious factor in the Democratic equation, particularly after Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York decided against running. Here in New Hampshire Harkin's campaign is being headed by Mary Chambers, the state house minority leader, former Sen. John Durkin and Maureen Raiche, vice chair of the state party.

He also has that strong backing among labor leaders attracted by his message that there is nothing wrong with old-fashioned Democratic liberalism and by his confrontational class-warfare attacks on the president he always describes as "George Herbert Walker Bush."

The coalition, however, is not unlike the one that supported Walter F. Mondale in 1984. And that history raises some questions about Harkin's viability in this campaign. Mondale had the most sophisticated organization that year -- Kathi Rogers was one of those most heavily involved -- and unmatched support among officeholders, party leaders and union chiefs. But he was defeated by a late surge of support for Gary Hart ignited by Hart's better-than-expected second place in the Iowa caucuses.

The lesson of that campaign was that, contrary to the mythology of New Hampshire politics, organization is worth no more than 10 points or so on election day. What matters is the image the candidates project on television, either in news reports or through commercials.

That is the heart of the question about Harkin. Is he apparently running behind his rivals only because they have been quicker out of the box with advertising? Or is there some flaw in Harkin's message that limits his appeal to party regulars?

Some Democratic strategists -- including unaligned professionals as well as those working for Harkin's rivals -- are convinced that the Iowa Democrat's unrepentant liberalism is too hot to sell in d dTC year in which many Democrats believe the key target group is made up of those culturally conservative "Reagan Democrats" the party lost in the last three presidential elections. These pros argue that Harkin has yet to flesh out his basic theme with enough specifics on, for example, the economy to be a successful general election nominee.

Even granting that, however, Harkin would be expected to look stronger today than is the case simply on the support he enjoys among regulars. That is why his low standing in the polls, whatever their inadequacies as a predictive device, is such a political mystery.

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