Trailing Democrats must go after Clinton gingerly

On Politics Today

February 05, 1992|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Manchester,N.H. -- THE NEW HAMPSHIRE Democratic primary campaign is about to take a sharp turn toward the negative. Strategists for two trailing Democrats, Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, are conceding -- privately at least -- that they must find a way to cut the front-running Gov. Bill Clinton down to size in the final two weeks of the campaign. If they don't, either or both could be eliminated from the race for the Democratic presidential campaign by voters here Feb. 18.

But Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin face the tricky question of how to attack Mr. Clinton without evoking a backlash by seeming to exploit the controversy over his personal life that has now faded out of the public debate here but remains very much part of the private dialogue.

The two trailing Democrats also would like to cut into the apparent hard core of support for former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts. But that, too, is awkward because "Saint Paul" -- as some rivals derisively describe him -- has established a reputation with his supporters for playing positive and issue-centered underdog politics.

In the case of Mr. Clinton, the obvious and politically safe target is his record as governor of Arkansas. Mr. Harkin has begun sniping at Mr. Clinton's record on taxes, accusing him of favoring the corporate rich at the expense of the poor, and on the environment, where his record has been questioned by some of the activist groups most interested in the issue. The same themes are likely to be used by both Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin in late television advertising.

The Clinton campaign already has anticipated such an approach. It is running new commercials here putting a positive face on his performance in Little Rock to inoculate him against the expected criticism.

In one sense, Mr. Clinton's rivals are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. The single best issue they have these days is a challenge to his electability based on the allegations of Gennifer Flowers that she and Mr. Clinton had a 12-year affair, an accusation he has denied. But the way the charge surfaced in a supermarket tabloid has stirred an obvious backlash among voters who believe the press has been unfairly piling on Mr. Clinton.

Among political professionals, the conventional wisdom is that despite Mr. Clinton's continued lead in the opinion polls here, he has suffered enough damage at the margins to question whether he could compete successfully against President Bush in the general election. But there is no evidence that electability question is one that is relevant to many of the 125,000 Democrats expected to vote in the primary here. And his rivals have not yet found a formula for pressing that issue in an effective way that does not expose them to charges of dirty politics.

Both Mr. Harkin and Mr. Kerrey have other strings in their bows. Mr. Harkin is continuing to press his case that he is the "real Democrat" in the contest in the hope he can rally enough party regulars to win the 20 percent or so of the vote needed to survive New Hampshire. Mr. Kerrey is putting increasing stress on his position as the only candidate advocating a national health insurance program. Mr. Kerrey's managers also believe he must show himself in his late commercials as a more relaxed and engaging figure than he has appeared to be so far.

There are two unanswered questions about the shape of the Democratic campaign here. One is whether there is a hidden vote against Mr. Clinton on the personal life issue --meaning any substantial number of voters unwilling to say the issue matters but planning nonetheless to desert him. The second is how many voters are still genuinely undecided and susceptible to appeals in the final two weeks.

The usual thinking here is that many primary voters don't begin paying close attention until the final days of the campaign. And there is enough history of late swings of opinion in primaries here to support that thesis. But Mr. Clinton's state campaign coordinator, Mitchell Schwartz, argues, and some other knowledgeable Democrats agree, that this time there has been so much intense campaigning for the last two months that there may be fewer late-deciding voters.

The one thing clear with two weeks left is that Bill Clinton remains the leader in the Democratic field and that Paul Tsongas holds enough core support to be a player. The pressure is all on Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin to break through, by whatever means they can find.

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