The race of his life

Sandy Grady

October 06, 1992|By Sandy Grady

Pittsburgh - NOT READY for the big leagues.

The scouting report on Lynn Yeakel from the national media and Pennsylvania was noisily damning.

Thumbs down.

Sure, she was a pleasant, perky Philadelphia suburban housewife. But the word was out: She had been badly overmatched against Sen. Arlen Specter, a take-no-prisoners political pro.

Lousy campaign, they said. Too many gaffes. No substance. When Ms. Yeakel

walked into station KDKA here Saturday night, she knew she had one hour to stop her Pennsylvania Senate campaign from sliding over a cliff. One hour to stop the slurs that she was a rookie, know-nothing Hausfrau -- read "airhead" -- whose ride on "Year of the Woman" anger over the Anita Hill hearings had run out of gas.

The Yeakel stereotype had been giddily different a couple of months ago. Network shows and national mags starred her as one of the women who might crack the (nearly) all-male, all-white Senate. Then she ran into Mr. Specter's TV ad buzzsaw and her own inexperience. Critics laughed that she couldn't even pronounce the counties (not "Juanita" but "Junia-AT-a") and that she often drew a blank on issues.

As she tumbled eight to 16 points behind, insiders stamped Ms. Yeakel as a nice lady if you wanted a PTA president but out of her league against hardballer Mr. Specter.

"It's survival time," Ms. Yeakel told a friend as she entered KDKA for the first and only Senate debate.

Well, the story would be more climactic if underdog Ms. Yeakel cleaned Mr. Specter's clock, re-established herself a feminist heroine and turned the last 30 days of the Senate race into tense drama. The results weren't that clear-cut.

The over-controlled debate format was too rigid for anybody to score a definitive "win." Mr. Specter and Ms. Yeakel appeared on TV screens as talking heads -- one could have been in Altoona, the other in Aliquippa. They never directly confronted each other.

It was like ABC's "Nightline," with Philly TV guy Malcolm Poindexter in the Ted Koppel role, lobbing softballs on the deficit, education, etc.

Ms. Yeakel held her own in the exchange of sound bites -- especially considering the low expectations for her against lawyerly Mr. Specter. ("Arlen will make mincemeat of her," was the pre-debate consensus).

She made no major mistakes. For once she was rehearsed on issues. To shake off her school-teacher demeanor, she threw in zingers: "The only record Sen. Specter distorts more than his own is mine."

Oddly, the name Ms. Yeakel seemed to avoid was that of Anita Hill. Did she think anger was fading over Ms. Hill, the avatar of women's rage whose mauling by Mr. Specter and his all-male judiciary panel mates drove Ms. Yeakel into politics?

"The subject didn't come up," Ms. Yeakel said later. "At the anniversary of those Clarence Thomas hearings next week I think you'll see emotions running high."

More likely Ms. Yeakel soft-pedaled the Specter vs. Hill controversy to show she wasn't a Jenny-one-note ignorant of wider issues.

"She did something she hadn't done before -- proved she wasn't a single-issue candidate," said Dr. Ted Windt, University of Pittsburgh expert on political rhetoric.

Ms. Yeakel struck at Mr. Specter's obvious soft spot -- what she called the "Reagan-Bush-Quayle-Specter recession" she claimed had cost 400,000 jobs. ("Nobody is better off than when Specter went to the Senate.") She zapped him as "Senator Flip-Flop" on a vote switch Mr. Specter hotly denied happened.

If Ms. Yeakel didn't stop her slide, she showed she's gaining poise and savvy. So far, though, she hasn't focused on why she would make the better U.S. senator. Her argument that she'd be able to work with presumed President Bill Clinton and a Democratic leadership hasn't struck a winning chord.

If Ms. Yeakel ducked Anita Hill, the three words Mr. Specter avoided were "President George Bush."

Mr. Specter has to play such nimble games to survive in a Democratic state where Mr. Bush is in deep trouble. He presented himself as an "independent" in company with such free-thinking Republicans as Senators Hatfield, Packwood and Chaffee who sometimes oppose Mr. Bush. "It can be lonely in the Republican caucus," said Mr. Specter.

Later Mr. Specter denied he was "running from Bush" -- "I'm at his side when he campaigns in the state."

In the KDKA debate Mr. Specter packaged himself as the Ultimate Pennsylvanian and kindly Santa Claus for the state. Twice he noted he'd "visited every one of the 67 counties." He mentioned his popularity in senior citizen centers. He did not overlook one dam, lock or highway he'd funded.

"I'm going retail in this campaign," said Mr. Specter later, meaning he's selling himself as Pennsylvania's customer service in Washington. "If my opponent were elected, this state would rank 50th in seniority."

Arlen was Arlen in the debate -- detailed, dogged, factual if a bit boring. His gallantry toward Ms. Yeakel only broke after the debate, when he steamed, "She called me a liar, a word I would never use."

The word he used against Anita Hill, of course, was "perjurer."

Mr. Specter, though, is confident he's neutralizing the fury over the Thomas-Hill rhubarb. "I've spoken to women's groups about it. I think I've learned a lot about sexual harassment. Her (Yeakel) problem is that Professor Hill is her only issue . . . "

When the debate faded off the KDKA screen, though, viewers saw a paid Specter ad: Teresa Heinz, John Heinz's widow, saying, "I didn't agree with Arlen Specter during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Nevertheless, I'm supporting him . . ."

A slick move that showed why hardballer Mr. Specter has survived 12 years. Two women named Anita Hill and Lynn Yeakel scared him into running the campaign of his life.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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