Broad coalition built by Clinton is holding fast 'New Democrat' image called key

October 19, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- The broad coalition Bill Clinton began to build in January appears to be holding fast in mid-October, withstanding Republican assaults and the temptation of Ross Perot.

It has been Mr. Clinton's greatest political feat, uniting large numbers of whites, blacks, suburbanites and city dwellers -- among them millions of people who had voted Republican since 1980.

Polls show he has strength in all regions of the country and has even loosened the Republican grip on Southern white male voters who spurned the Democratic Party in the three previous elections.

In a telling illustration of his appeal -- and confidence -- Mr. Clinton campaigned Friday in Louisiana, a state in which President Bush clobbered Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

The reasons for Mr. Clinton's success can be seen in the striking differences between the Arkansas governor and Mr. Dukakis, the erstwhile Massachusetts governor who didn't even mount a national campaign.

Foremost, Mr. Clinton styled himself a moderate "New Democrat" and reached out to a wider audience than a Northeastern liberal such as Mr. Dukakis could, believing it was impossible to win without winning over many disaffected Democrats.

He crafted a message that mixed liberal and conservative themes and was not tailored to particular groups, such as urban and minority voters, with whom the party had become identified. stuck to it, despite pressure during the primaries from the party's liberal activist core, and kept his focus even when Mr. Perot's springtime popularity cut deeply into the white suburban and rural communities Mr. Clinton was courting.

Mr. Clinton periodically re-invigorated his image as an "I'm not a Dukakis liberal" politician by making a public show of distancing himself from longtime party totems. Denouncing the rap music of Sister Souljah, he signaled a sharp break with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; endorsing free trade, he demonstrated independence from labor bosses.

Yet for all his careful preparation, Mr. Clinton's centrist message might have gone unheard were it not for a factor he couldn't control: President Bush's problems with the economy.

"There are just few people willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on economic matters, and that gives Clinton this opportunity," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black.

But not just any Democrat could have taken advantage, a number of analysts say. If Mr. Clinton wins, it will be because he convinced the public that he is in fact a new Democrat, says William A. Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"He has succeeded in . . . portraying himself as both an alternative to the failed policies of the Bush administration and the policies of the Democratic Party that have been repudiated," says Mr. Galston, who advised Mr. Clinton last year. "He has convinced a solid majority of the electorate that he represents a double-barreled change."

Mr. Clinton cast himself as an advocate of welfare reform and the death penalty, which set him apart from many in his party and inoculated him against Republican attacks that he was too liberal and soft on crime. These positions were built on a solid foundation of his Arkansas record on these issues and his prominent role in the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

At the same time, Mr. Clinton took positions that pleased more liberal voters, strongly advocating civil rights for minorities and homosexuals and tax "fairness" in the form of higher levies on the wealthy.

Accused often of straddling issues, Mr. Clinton nonetheless stood his ground at key moments. Mr. Galston believes he passed an important test in the minds of voters on the death penalty, even though he "took an enormous amount of flak back in the spring when he returned to Arkansas and actually presided over an execution."

The impression Mr. Clinton has conveyed is that he is "not pandering to interest groups," says American University political historian Allan Lichtman. He "recognizes that presidential elections are won across the board."

The results speak for themselves: 59 percent of Democrats who voted for Mr. Bush four years ago are supporting Mr. Clinton today, according to a recent New York Times poll.

In that survey, he held a 2-to-1 edge among voters 18 to 29 years old, and he was winning the suburban vote by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent, reversing the trends of the past 12 years.

Perhaps the biggest shock to Mr. Bush is that his Democratic opponent is running even among white Southern men, only 32 percent of whom supported Mr. Dukakis. Mr. Black, the political scientist, says Mr. Clinton's naming Tennessee Sen. Al Gore as his running mate "really helped him in the region."

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