One candidate says she doesn't have all the answers

April 28, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

WILKES-BARRE, PA. — WILKES-BARRE, Pa.-- When someone asked Lynn Yeakel for her views on adult education, she confessed: "I don't know enough about that issue to give you a reply." Her listeners, gathered for a coffee here the other morning, applauded enthusiastically.

The same thing happened a moment later when she admitted that, although she was "very wary" of President Bush's proposals on education, she just didn't "know enough" to comment on his plan for providing college funding with $25,000 lines of credit. They clapped again.

A candidate for the Senate who concedes that she doesn't know enough to answer questions about issues is a rare bird indeed. But Lynn Yeakel, in hot pursuit of the Democratic nomination to opposeincumbent Arlen Specter, is not your usual candidate.

On the contrary, she may be the quintessential example of the kind of candidate the polls suggest the country is demanding this year: a woman enjoying the presumption of political cleanliness women areaccorded, inexperienced in politics, running against the white male establishment as represented by both Mr. Specter and Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, her principal rival in the Democratic primary here today.

And she finds nothing surprising about the response she evokes when she admits fallibility. "If I don't know the answer, I tell them I don't know the answer," she said over a post-rally coffee. "I can't possibly know everything. I've only been in this [politics] three months."

That amateur standing drives Mr. Singel up the wall. "I've been building this [current campaign] for years," he said after a speech to a Cumberland County Democratic dinner at the Mariposa Ballroom in Carlisle. "Going to the rubber-chicken dinners, building as you go, pulling the constituency groups together. I believe in incremental politics."

A month ago his conventional pursuit of the nomination seemed on track. At 38, he was in his sixth year as lieutenant governor after six years in the state Senate and four as a congressional staff member in Washington -- in short, just the kind of orthodox resume young Senate candidates usually offer.

But his lead began to dwindle after Ms. Yeakel began using a TV

commercial to exploit Pennsylvanians' anger at the way Mr. Specter questioned Anita Hill in the hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Since then Ms. Yeakel's stock has so risen that election eve polls showed her with a narrow edge over Mr. Singel.

The erstwhile front-runner was finding it hard to swallow. "Frankly, I find that to be a little cynical, a little manipulative of the system," he said. Addressing the Carlisle audience, he warned the Democratic regulars of those who ride "the tide of opportunism" and those who "take advantage of a particular trend."

Ms. Yeakel does not deny riding the moment. She is a 51-year-old social activist whose only public role was as director of Women's Way, a coalition of organizations devoted to helping battered women, rape victims and other women in need, until she was outraged by Mr. Specter and his all-male Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues -- and found many others who shared her anger.

"My candidacy wouldn't exist if it were not for Specter," she said.

So she has financed a campaign with $280,000 of her own money and $600,000 in contributions that have made her a serious threat to Mr. Specter if she can defeat Mr. Singel today -- in part, because she already has become the new favorite of women's political activist groups energized by both the Anita Hill episode and the prospect that the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion will be overturned.

In fact, Ms. Yeakel seems to have adapted to political life rather quickly without becoming a prisoner of its conventions. She is something of a media darling; her candidacy has been endorsed by the state's four largest newspapers. And she has begun to pick up endorsements from Democratic officeholders.

Mr. Singel insists that, as he put it, "a bright new face is better in a primary" of Democrats than in the general election, when the electorate is more conservative and a candidate needs "some street smarts about how to get it done."

"I could be good at it if I get that chance," Mr. Singel said.

In an ordinary year he would be a heavy favorite. But in 1992 he is even money, if that.

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