Crunching the political numbers In '92, Democrats like the arithmetic

July 15, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- In a direct reversal of their usual predilections, the Democrats at this convention seem to be making more use of their pocket calculators than their glands in assessing their prospects of winning the White House in November.

There may be, to be sure, some enthusiasts here who would walk through a wall for Bill Clinton. But most of the party professionals and officeholders are basing their optimism on clear-eyed pragmatism.

No convention is an ideal laboratory for measuring a party's health. In such a hothouse atmosphere, it would be surprising if the delegates were not energized and often deluded. Even when they faced an incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984, many Democrats left San Francisco having talked themselves into believing that he could be defeated by Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro despite all the evidence to the contrary.

But this time the Democrats see potential in the political arithmetic that isn't always there. The single most important calculation is that President Bush appears remarkably vulnerable, far more so than anyone in the party would have imagined a few months ago.

"What I see," says Rep. Lawrence J. Smith of Florida, who is rarely given to flights of fancy, "is that the Perot numbers are going down, but the Bush numbers are not going up."

To Mr. Smith, this suggests that even Florida, a wasteland for Democratic presidential candidates since 1964, is in play. If Mr. Perot can remain a factor, the reasoning goes, Mr. Bush can lose enough of his core support there so that Clinton could capture the 25 electoral votes with a base of blacks, Jewish voters in the Miami area and the elderly.

"If we can win Florida, we can win anywhere," Mr. Smith says.

Similar calculations are being made in other trouble spots. In Alabama, Joe Reed, the leader of the most influential black political organization, the Alabama Democratic Conference, says the combination of Mr. Clinton from Arkansas and Sen. Al Gore of neighboring Tennessee, can draw enough white votes to break the Republican hold that has existed since 1976.

"If this ticket can't carry the South, they'll never nominate another Southerner," said Mr. Reed, "but they can do it."

A leading Democrat from the Midwest says privately: "Clinton isn't lighting any fires, but Bush is weak enough that even a little diversion to Perot and we're home free."

A prominent New York Democrat, also speaking privately, adds: "Selling another Southerner, let alone two more Southerners, isn't any piece of cake here. Too many people remember Carter, and they hear Clinton and think of that. But we don't need to get a shutout, you know, we just need to get more than the other two guys."

Mr. Gore's presence on the ticket is singled out by some as a reason for optimism. Rep. Norman Y. Mineta of California, for instance, says the Tennessee senator's credentials on the environment will be a major advantage in carrying the state that will cast 54 electoral votes, one-fifth the number needed to be elected.

Says another Californian: "Nobody knows Clinton but they do know Bush and they are turned off. If Perot slips, there isn't any way we can lose it, believe it or not."

There are still many signs of reservations about Mr. Clinton. Former Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina, running for that office again, has kept his distance from the national ticket after ZTC the unhappy experience of being tarred with Mr. Mondale's liberalism in a failed Senate campaign in 1984. Mr. Hunt came here for the first day of the convention, met with the delegation and quickly retreated, although he clearly could have had a place on the convention program for the asking.

Some consultants working for female candidates for the Senate are advising those candidates to stand apart just a little, at least until they see how the campaign develops. The fear here is that there still may be "another shoe" to drop on Mr. Clinton's personal life that would make him a burden for a clean politics woman candidate.

The concern over such a development is not as great as the fear that President Bush's campaign will use the so-called "family values" argument to mount an attack on the Arkansas Democrat comparable to the one used to portray Michael S. Dukakis as both weak and unpatriotic four years ago.

"We can't control that," says a leading Clinton backer. "Bill has to find a way to deal with that himself."

What this suggests, of course, is that there is special pressure on Mr. Clinton to deliver an acceptance speech tomorrow night that is reassuring to these Democrats who would like to find an emotional as well as practical reason to support him without reservation.

That pressure is heightened by the fact that although he has been on the national political stage for most of the last 15 years, Mr. Clinton is not a politician like Mr. Mondale with a long history in the trenches with other Democrats. He is too young to have been part of the defining struggles in the party over civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

The result is that these Democrats are drawing their comfort from the reports that suggest the combination of Perot's presence and Bush's weakness have made the White House within reach. It may not be emotionally satisfying, but it is a distinct change from the pessimism that pervaded the party even six weeks ago.

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