Returns show Democrats' lack of a 'third man'

February 19, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

MANCHESTER N.H. — MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In the end, the Democratic primary here has raised more questions than it has answered.

The one that matters is this one: Where do the Democrats find the candidate who can take advantage of the vulnerability President Bush demonstrated so clearly here?

No one in the Democratic Party except Paul Tsongas and his most devoted admirers would argue that the returns here produced a satisfying answer. So the second question is: Do the Democrats now try to recruit an alternative "third man" such as House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt?

The triumph of Mr. Tsongas was by any rational measure a remarkable achievement for a one-term senator from Massachusetts no one would ever accuse of being an exciting campaigner. But Mr. Tsongas now must demonstrate he can win in other parts of the country where he doesn't have as much time to grow on the Democratic voters with his earnest insistence on telling voters the bad news.

Bill Clinton's second-place finish, coming three weeks after he held a clear lead in the opinion polls, inevitably will be attributed to a voter reaction against the controversies about his personal life and draft history. For Mr. Clinton, the critical question now is whether he can demonstrate that he can overcome those reservations in the electorate elsewhere.

For many Democratic professionals, the most disappointing result of the returns here was their failure to produce another candidate showing the obvious promise to become a serious contender down the line. The consensus favorite was Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who seemed less flawed as a general election candidate than the others, but he failed to set himself clearly apart from Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.

The indecisive quality of the Democratic returns is most evident in the fact that the primary here has not left anyone dead on the political battlefield. On the contrary, even Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin have received enough political nourishment to go on to the next rounds in the Maine caucuses Sunday, the South Dakota primary next Tuesday and a round of tests in seven states -- including primaries in Maryland, Georgia and Colorado -- March 3.

In trying to establish their bona fides as serious contenders, the survivors are likely to choose their battlegrounds carefully. For Mr. Clinton, for example, the first priority will be the Georgia primary, which offers him an opportunity to disprove the suspicion in the political community that his draft history will be a heavy burden with conservative southern Democratic voters who have been deserting the party for Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the last three elections.

The first target for Mr. Tsongas will be the Maine party caucuses, where he now will be established as the clear favorite. But Mr. Tsongas also intends to make several stops in South Dakota in the next week before concentrating on Maryland.

For Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin, the South Dakota vote a week away will be significant because both come from nearby Farm Belt states and have had campaign operations on the ground for several weeks. If one of them takes a serious fall there, he will find it difficult to make a case as even a strong regional favorite, much less a national candidate.

The problem for Mr. Tsongas is not just the label of "regional

candidate" -- one that really isn't valid -- but the kind of frenetic schedule he now faces. Mr. Tsongas' strength as a candidate has been his ability to wear well with the electorate and drive home the substance of his message week after week until he won increasing acceptance.

If he is able to do that elsewhere, Mr. Tsongas could be the final answer to that basic Democratic question. But few in the political world would make that bet today.

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