Bentsen, the Stopper in the Bullpen

January 31, 1992

The first inning in the presidential campaign is still two and a half weeks away, but it is not too early for Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown to alert the bullpen. His starters are not looking too sharp warming up.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the front runner, has multiple problems. There is the will-not-die story of his extra-marital affairs. There is the attack on him for ethnic insensitivity by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and some other Italian-Americans. The Sun's Paul West reports from Washington that "worries about Mr. Clinton's electability are helping fuel speculation that some other prominent figure may yet join the race."

The problem for the Democrats is that after several weeks of campaigning for the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, only two of the candidates have connected at all with New Hampshire voters. One is the now-suspect Governor Clinton. The other is former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, who has no base outside New England and no resources for establishing one.

Messrs. Clinton and Tsongas lead the other serious candidates -- Sens. Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey -- by a wide margin. (In fact, in New Hampshire "undecided" is third.) One reason: only candidates Clinton and Tsongas have been offering sensible, moderate ideas about the nation's No. 1 problem, the economy. Meanwhile, the two senators have been offering old Democratic liberal wine in new bottles. This is the wine that has led the party's presidential candidates staggering to defeat in five of the last six elections.

Paul West reported that these Democrats "are being mentioned by party leaders as possible late entrants: Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, Sens. Al Gore Jr. of Tennessee and John D. 'Jay' Rockefeller of West Virginia and Governor Cuomo." Of that list, Representative Gephardt, Senator Mitchell and Governor Cuomo are too close in philosophy and record to Sens. Harkin and Kerrey for comfort. Senator Rockefeller is just a name to the nation.

Senator Gore is moderate enough on many issues to have appeal in the vital South and West. In 1988's presidential primaries he won five states and came in second five times. Senator Bentsen is popular in the South and West -- and beyond. At the end of the 1988 presidential campaign, in which he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee, a Gallup Poll showed voters viewed him more "favorably" than they did Dan Quayle, Michael Dukakis -- or George Bush. The Democrats may not have what Earl Weaver used to call deep depth, but they have some.

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