Making New Hampshire the First Test Maryland Clintonites On a Limb

February 16, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH | C. FRASER SMITH,Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

A cartoonist conjuring with the presidential primaries this year might be inclined to draw dozens of nervously smiling politicians perched on a limb labeled Bill Clinton.

The voters of New Hampshire would be climbing up a ladder with saws at the ready.

A typical media cheap shot? Playing fast and humorous with serious political business? A misreading of the candidate's circumstances?

All of the above, according to Mr. Clinton's backers in Maryland.

Maybe. But Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary has added significance and drama this year, not only for Mr. Clinton, but for the Democrats who anointed him as the most electable of their party's candidates in 1992.

Even before the first issue papers hit the street in Maryland, a stampede of senators, delegates, contributors and anonymous Democratic committee members became Clinton loyalists. Many of the state's most prominent political strategists, organizers and fund-raisers had also thrown in with what they concluded was 1992's best bet.

Since then, they have watched their candidate absorb a battering by rumors, tabloid exposes, mainstream press follow-ups and the requisite Clinton camp counterattacks. Many of the Marylanders insist that Mr. Clinton and his wife have handled the "character issues" (allegations of draft dodging and marital infidelity) with pluck and even dignity.

For a candidate whose platform had been electability, these charges -- well-founded or not -- seemed to be at least potentially fatal. To some extent, his backers have been obliged to rewrite the book on what helps and hurts a campaign.

A range of arguments were advanced last week as the Clinton forces opened their Maryland headquarters -- on a day polls in New Hampsire showed former Massachusetts senator Paul E. Tsongas in a virtual tie with the once-front running Clinton.

As if reading from a spin doctor's script, they said, their man can survive a second place finish in New Hampshire -- because he has money and his challengers don't. Hoping they are not delivering a commentary on their party's primary field, they insist Mr. Clinton is still the most electable candidate.

Mr. Clinton's opponents say he won backing in Maryland by virtually foreclosing consideration of substantive issues -- by asserting a somewhat mysterious and prepossessing electability. That platform seemed to make him even more vulnerable to the charges lodged against him. Suddenly, Mr. Electability was grappling with the suggestion that he had become damaged goods.

He has plenty of defenders in Maryland, though, and many of them argue that Republicans will be found at the bottom of the charges. Republicans fear the Clinton candidacy more than any other, they say. And, more than that, the American voter is tired of campaigns that don't address the economic ills of the nation, the decline of public education and any number of other pressing issues.

State Senator Mary Boergers, D-Montgomery, said she went into the fray with her eyes wide open.

Like many of her colleagues, she had heard the rumors before she endorsed.

"In my estimation, we weren't going to find the perfect candidate. But because of his career and his ability, I was willing to put up with someone who was going to have charges against him. I think he's still electable."

"I never feel out on a limb," she said. "I do what I think is the right thing. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose."

State Treasurer Lucille Maurer dismissed the questions about Mr. Clinton as "Republican mudslinging."

Nancy Voss, Democratic central committee member from Caroline County, said people on the Eastern Shore are not overly concerned with what presidential candidates do when they are "off duty."

Her husband, Jim, says the Eastern Shore voter cares more about Mr. Clinton's record as a governor who managed well with limited resources.

Jane Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said she checked with her counterpart in Arkansas and heard good things about Governor Clinton. Her union's unhappiness with President Bush, she said, made electability the primary concern.

She finds Mr. Bush far from an "education president."

"If he could be the education president by simply saying he is, I could be Gina Lollobrigida," she said.

Marylanders are standing by their man, but they know New Hampshire will matter here and elsewhere. Mike Davis, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, says the major importance will be in the candidate's ability to raise money. Just how that important ability has been affected by the charges and by New Hampshire's results will be seen fairly quickly in Maryland.

A week from today, Clinton supporters will convene at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel in Baltimore for the usual two-tiered 'u fund-raising fete. A so-called "Issues Dinner" at $250-per-plate will follow a private "Questions and Answers" reception for those willing to invest $1,000 in the presidential fortunes of the Arkansas governor.

The turnout for this event and others like it around the country will determine the candidate's viability and strength in the general election.

"Every campaign has something it isn't proud of," Senator Boergers said. "Voters have the right to make up their minds on anything they consider pertinent. But I'm concerned that in the effort to find the perfect presidential candidate we lose sight of reality. Nobody's perfect.

"If you get caught up in finding somebody who can't be criticized they become fake," she said.

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