Democrats' anybody-but phenomenon rises again ON POLITICS

Newswatch ... ON POLITICS GERMOND & WITCOVER

March 27, 1992|By Jack Germond And Jules Witcover

MILWAUKEE -- Whether it's by calculation or just plain orneriness, Democrats seem to like punishing their presidential front-runners, or at least making them sweat a bit before finally anointing them as their party's nominees.

Gov. Bill Clinton is experiencing the discomfort now after his narrow defeat by former Gov.Jerry brown in the Connecticut primary.And Brown enthusiasts in Wisconsin and in New York are hoping to administer another dose of the same medicine to him on April 7.

As far back as 20 years ago, front-runner George McGovern got a taste of it when Democrats less liberal than himself threw their support behind Hubert Humphrey in what was then known as ABM. Those initials were commonly used at that time as the abbreviation for anti-ballistic missile, but in this case they meant Anybody But McGovern.

In 1976, when a Washington outsider named Jimmy Carter broke out front and stayed there, the yearning in some Democratic quarters brought about the late candidacies of Sen. Frank Church and the very same Jerry Brown now clinging tenaciously to Clinton. The phenomenon was known then as ABC, for Anybody But Carter. Together, Church and Brown won a clear majority of the primaries remaining, though not enough to bar Carter's nomination.

Again in 1980, when Carter seemed safely on his way to renomination after easily beating Sen. Ted Kennedy and Brown in all the early primary and caucus states, voters in New York, Pennsylvania and California rose up and expressed their unwillingness to settle the nomination by giving a majority of their convention delegates to Kennedy. Carter was nominated anyway, although not without a last-ditch procedural fight at the convention by the Kennedyites.

In 1984, Gary Hart threw a scare into Walter Mondale, and even after the Mondale campaign recovered and seemed on its way to the nomination, Hart came clawing back. Only some 11th-hour phone calls of pleading persuasion by Mondale himself mustered enough delegates to claim the nomination.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis was spared a real Anybody But phenomenon at least in part because the alternative still standing, Jesse Jackson, was considered much less acceptable the clear majority of the voters.

The defeat of Clinton in Connecticut may have just been a general expression of frustration against officeholders in the light of the severe budgetary and economic woes of the state, especially bitter because of the distasteful medicine spooned out to the citizenry by maverick Gov. Lowell Weicker, who used )) to pass for a liberal Republican but was elected governor as an independent.

With Brown raising the decibel level on his anti-incumbent harangue, and with stalwarts for former Sen. Paul Tsongas hanging in despite their candidate's withdrawal, Clinton fell one percentage point short in Connecticut. Without Tsongas on the ballot, however, his defeat may have been worse, considering the animosity that had developed between the Clinton and Tsongas camps.

But more worrisome for Clinton were the exit polls that found clear majorities questioning his honesty and integrity, with the New York tabloids, having warmed up on the character issue in Connecticut, now hitting the ground running in their own state.

In every one of the five previous Democratic nomination fights over the last 20 years, the front-runner finally survived the late charge against him and became the party standard-bearer. None of them, however, carried the personal baggage, fairly or unfairly, that Clinton now totes because of allegations of personal or official misconduct.

He has proved to be a very resilient candidate so far, but he still must survive this latest version of ABC -- Anybody But Clinton. And the anybody wouldn't necessarily be Brown, who has so alienated most of the regulars who will be delegates to the convention.

The odds still clearly favor Clinton, who is about halfway toward accumulating the delegates he needs for the nomination. But if he doesn't put Brown down in New York, it will stir more speculation about the Anybody-But phenomenon.

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