Democrats are learning to act like Republicans ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 21, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri Democrats this year are bent on making a liar out of Will Rogers.

The Oklahoma sage used to say that "I don't belong to any organized party -- I'm a Democrat." And in the Show-Me State as elsewhere, the party's reputation for internal squabbling, often self-defeating, has been deserved in recent years.

This time around, the Democrats are determined to get along. A major basis for their optimism is that for the first time since 1976, when Missouri last voted Democratic for president, they have a national ticket that local and statewide candidates believe can win, and are embracing.

The Democrats also believe they have the resources to carry most of the statewide ticket along with Bill Clinton and Al Gore, through a coordinated campaign linking all candidates, as the Republicans have done for years.

The coordinated-campaign concept -- central planning and expenditure of resources to benefit the whole ticket -- has been a Democratic disappointment in most states in the past. In the 1988 presidential race, leading Missouri Democrats say, the national campaign of Michael Dukakis merely paid lip service to the concept, and local Democratic candidates here had little confidence in his ability to get elected, let alone provide coattails for them.

"It's a 180-degree turn from 1988," says Julie Gibson, the Clinton-Gore state coordinator. "A lot of it is the standard-bearer that everybody can swallow. They all like this candidate and he talks to them whenever he comes here. You don't have the attitude that here comes the presidential candidate coming to run us over."

Roy Temple, the chief political aide to Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan, says: "In 1988, the coordinated campaign was never seen here as real. It was in fact a Dukakis campaign only." That clearly is not the case this year. Mel Carnahan, now running for governor says: "There's no such thing as distancing yourself from the presidential campaign." Or from anyone else on the ticket for that matter, he says, as happened so often in the past. Geri Rothman-Sirot, the Senate candidate against Republican incumbent Christopher Bond, adds: "You finally see Democrats acting like Republicans in Missouri."

Especially linking Carnahan and Rothman-Sirot is the abortion issue, on which each is a strong advocate of women's choice. The Republican nominee for governor is state Attorney General William Webster, who brought the case in which the Supreme Court first endorsed limits on abortion rights as defined in Roe vs. Wade. Bond is also anti-abortion and Rothman-Sirot, while an underdog, is looking to the Democratic coordinated campaign in this ballyhooed "Year of the Woman" to help put her over the top.

Missouri Republican leaders scoff at the notion that the Democrats have learned to work in harmony as the Republicans have done for years. Ann Wagner, the Bush-Quayle state director, says the Democratic approach "is a page right out of the Republican campaign plan" but lacking the party cohesion needed to make it work.

Democrats here contend, however, that lack of cohesion may be a Republican problem this year, after a bitter gubernatorial fight in which Webster beat out Secretary of State Roy Blount, perceived as retiring Gov. John Ashcroft's favorite, and state Treasurer Wendell Bailey. Ashcroft denies the primary bred any lasting division, but he concedes it did absorb needed campaign resources for the fall.

The long-held view of moderate Democrats that the party must shed its ultraliberal image to win heartland states gets strong backing in Missouri, accounting for much of the popularity of the all-Southern national ticket.

Carnahan says the ticket holds promise of bringing back Reagan Democrats who abound in southeast Missouri. "The plaintive cry there used to be, 'We haven't left the Democratic Party, it has left us,'" he says. "You're not hearing that anymore with Clinton and Gore."

Four years ago, Dukakis, without a real coordinated campaign, lost the state to George Bush by only 48 percent to 52 percent. Missouri Democrats figure this year will be different, as long as they can continue to behave -- at least in one way -- like Republicans.

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