Needed: Prolonged Campaign

BRUCE BABBITT

February 23, 1992|By BRUCE BABBITT

Like the Oracle of Delphi, New Hampshire's voters have spoken to us in riddles.

President Bush has been savaged by a challenger who can't win.

Paul Tsongas is a winner with few places to go.

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas has bounced back because Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, an authentic war hero, can't seem to take advantage of the renewed debate over Vietnam.

The conventional wisdom among Democratic leaders is that we should unite quickly behind a nominee.

The sages in Washington would like to scrub these hapless newcomers and bring in a brand name such as Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York or Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.

Unhappily for them, one of the few clear messages from New Hampshire, in the form of a paltry 3 percent write-in vote for the New York governor, is that voters aren't looking for candidates who sat on the sidelines when the president looked invincible.

New Hampshire's voters, it seems, are telling us that this campaign hasn't gone on long enough.

We just don't know enough about the candidates.

With the exception of Jerry Brown, who was governor of California, they are all newcomers, mostly from small states.

And with the exception of Mr. Clinton, the news media haven't really subjected them to the hazing that is part of a presidential campaign.

If the 1988 campaign was a bit too long, this one has been way too short.

It started late because of Operation Desert Storm and the high approval ratings the gulf war conferred on a weak incumbent.

But that's no reason to rush to judgment. This campaign should go all the way clear to California and even to the convention in New York in July.

Four years ago, we slogged through Iowa and New Hampshire for months, too often sounding like congressional candidates offering up seed catalogs full of new Federal grants.

This time the candidates have learned that the economy is the issue in presidential elections. They are finding that voters are eager for truth-telling about the effort we must make to get this country back on track.

While none of the candidates has succeeded in putting the words to music, they are shaking off the past and creating a new Democratic center that will be competitive in presidential politics.

Why should we gamble on who has the potential to put it together?

They are still learning from each other. Prolonging the process will eventually produce a better nominee.

Tradition dictates that candidates bow out gracefully once they lose several primaries and the press puts them in the last paragraph of the story.

It may be that the next round of primaries in South Dakota and Colorado will eliminate either Mr. Kerrey or Sen. Tom Harkin.

And if Mr. Clinton wins all over the South he will certainly be on the way.

Money becomes a problem for second-tier candidates, but they don't charge to attend debates.

This time, however, they owe it to their party and their country to stay in.

Remember that in the 1988 convention we lowered the percentage threshold for accruing delegates in state primaries.

The rule was written for Jesse Jackson, but now it should encourage all candidates to stay in and take delegates to the convention.

This year there are more super delegates -- governors, senators, congressmen and members of the Democratic National Committee -- than ever.

It's a good concept, and they ought to stay uncommitted, remaining available to steer the convention in a different direction or to break a deadlock.

There is also another reason to keep all the Democrats in the race as long as possible. Their presence will encourage Pat Buchanan in his effort to force the president to come up with an economic plan.

As long as the Democratic race continues, Republicans will be more willing to fight among themselves instead of closing ranks against an early Democratic nominee.

That will be good for the country -- and for the Democrats as well.

Bruce Babbitt, governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987, was a Democratic candidate for president in 1988. He wrote this commentary for the New York Times.

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