State Democrats Are Whistling a Happy Tune

BARRY RASCOVAR

July 19, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Now that Bill Clinton has navigated the perils of the Democratic Party's nominating convention, he turns his attention the really important aspect of politics: getting elected. It looks far more achievable across the country than it did just a few weeks ago.

In Maryland, too, the political skies have brightened appreciably for Democrats. The Arkansas governor must be viewed as the favorite to take Maryland and its 10 electoral votes in November.

George Bush is, in this state, in ''deep doo-doo'' (to use the president's own terminology). He captured Maryland four years ago by only 50,000 votes, defeating a lackluster Michael Dukakis by 3 percentage points. Compare that to Ronald Reagan's 88,000-vote (6 percentage points) victory in 1984 over a far more credible Democrat, Walter Mondale.

With Republican registration on the rise in the state's fast-growing suburbs and public sentiment turning more conservative in its feelings toward government, you would think Mr. Bush would be in much better shape.

But he isn't. There's no groundswell of emotional enthusiasm for the man from Kennebunkport (by way of Houston).

Maryland remains a solid Democratic bastion. Defeating a unified Democratic Party here is an uphill struggle, and it appears that may be the case this year. A centrist Democrat is especially tough to beat, and that seems to be what Bill Clinton wants to offer voters this year.

None of this looked possible back in March, when Mr. Clinton lost the Maryland primary by nearly 40,000 votes to Paul Tsongas while George Bush was stomping Pat Buchanan by 96,000 votes.

Since then, Mr. Clinton, with grit and determination, has rescued his flagging campaign while Mr. Bush's re-election bid seems stymied.

The aimless Bush presidency still appears unfocused; the animated Clinton candidacy has turned purposeful and thoughtfully focused on ways to win back middle Americans who voted Republican in recent presidential elections. While Mr. Bush has gravitated to the right, Mr. Clinton has slid firmly into the middle of the political spectrum.

At least the Bush camp no longer has to worry about the Perot factor. H. Ross Perot's independent presidential candidacy threatened to put a big dent in Mr. Bush's vote totals. The Perot appeal was more to disenchanted conservatives than to liberals, and those were the voters Mr. Bush was romancing, too.

Still, it is Mr. Clinton and not Mr. Bush who goes into the campaign as the professed agent of change. For those who jumped on the Perot bandwagon because they wanted major revisions in the way government is run, their only hope now lies in Bill Clinton.

The Perot candidacy simply highlighted the stark number of voters discontent with politics as usual. It should be giving the incumbent president shudders, even without Ross Perot in the race.

Nor is Mr. Bush being helped in Maryland by the GOP's nominee in the biggest statewide race. Alan Keyes' self-immolation on the campaign trail is making a joke out of the U.S. Senate election. He's proving to be a disaster. Barbara Mikulski's liberal, crowd-pandering populism may make many Marylanders uncomfortable, but her re-election -- by a vast margin -- looks secure at this stage.

Another Bush headache could prove to be the abortion issue. The president has aligned himself solidly with the conservative absolutists, the ''abortion is murder'' crowd. Every poll in recent years has placed his group in the minority in Maryland. We'll find out for sure in November when voters decide the fate of a law that effectively places the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, in the state's statutes.

The last thing George Bush needs in Maryland is a volatile issue like abortion. It could bring to the polls committed young women who ordinarily might never cast a vote. If they feel that strongly about abortion, they sure aren't going to cast their presidential vote for Mr. Bush.

So in the afterglow of a united Democratic convention, Bill Clinton's outlook in Maryland is unusually positive. Local Democrats, for the first time in years, aren't at each other's throats. They are determined to regain the White House, even if it means submerging their considerable differences.

Will that euphoria last? What if Mr. Bush regains his momentum at the Republican convention next month? What if the ''character issue'' re-emerges to dog Bill Clinton's fall campaign?

Americans haven't made up their minds by a long shot. We don't take our politics all that seriously till after Labor Day, anyway. But at least a rejuvenated Mr. Clinton is making this a tight and exciting horse race. Before, it looked like a Bush runaway.

Barry Rascovar is the editorial-page director of The Sun.

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