Blasted in ads as out of her depth, Yeakel has a chance in Pa. Senate race Clinton coattails could aid upstart

November 01, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Last in an occasional series on the Pennsylvania campaign.

PHILADELPHIA -- If there has been a single killer television commercial run anywhere this year, it is the one Sen. Arlen Specter is using here against Democratic challenger Lynn Yeakel.

It shows a news clip of a "waffle breakfast" sponsored by Ms. Yeakel at which she is asked to specify an issue on which Mr. Specter has waffled.

Looking stricken, Ms. Yeakel is shown saying: "I think, let's see. Hang on a minute, let me think about it. Do you mind? Just for a second."

The point of the ad, of course, is that the Democratic challenger is out of her depth in the political world in which experience counts.

It is the point Mr. Specter has been making all through the campaign here, ever since the political neophyte won an upset ** victory in the Democratic primary last spring, largely by attacking the Republican incumbent's prosecutorial role in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation.

But what may be most telling about the commercial is that it has not blown Ms. Yeakel out of the race.

She is clearly running behind -- as much as 10 points in one published poll, as little as 3 points in a three-day tracking poll -- but she remains within range of an upset if, as expected, Bill Clinton carries the state handily Tuesday.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

The most striking thing about the presidential contest here is that it has been essentially static since Labor Day, a referendum on the one issue that always dominates campaigns here -- jobs, jobs, jobs. Republicans and Democrats agree that, as Clinton-Gore campaign director Celia Fischer said, "It's still all about the economy."

Neil Oxman, a Democratic consultant, put it this way: "Based on what's happened, there's no reason for anyone who voted for Harris Wofford [in a special Senate election] in 1991 to vote for George Bush in 1992."

This is not to say that the race for the state's 23 electoral votes, the fifth largest prize Tuesday, has not tightened somewhat as it has nationally as Mr. Bush has continued to hammer at the credibility and record of his Democratic opponent. A Clinton lead that rose to close to 20 percent at one time here is now 10 to 12 points.

Mr. Bush has been into the state on three occasions, but there is a suspicion at least two of those visits were directed mostly at getting exposure on Philadelphia television outlets that serve southern New Jersey.

Mr. Clinton returned to the state yesterday and plans to pass through again Monday, in part because he wants to reach that south Jersey market. Both campaigns have extensive networks of field workers and volunteers doing the busy work of any campaign.

Crossovers needed

Elsie Hillman, the Republican national committeewoman serving as chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign, stoutly insists, "We're in the ballpark."

But she may be grasping for straws when she points to 14,000 USAir employees in the Pittsburgh area who may be angered by Mr. Clinton's opposition to the proposed British Airways quasi-merger with the carrier.

Nor is there any evidence moderate Republicans, particularly in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia, are any less alienated than they were originally by the moralistic tone of the GOP convention at Houston and the party's hard line against abortion rights.

"That is still our problem," Ms. Hillman acknowledges.

Some of these voters, women in particular, are among those keeping Ms. Yeakel in contention for the Senate seat, but it is not clear whether they will vote for Mr. Clinton or independent Ross Perot, who has never been a major presence here.

"What you can't tell about these people," a veteran Republican strategist said privately, "is whether they'll vote at all."

Ms. Yeakel clearly needs these crossovers because she has suffered some defections from the normal Democratic coalition here, particularly among some black leaders and unions.

But she has covered light years in honing her skills as a candidate and was widely judged to have won the only statewide televised debate of the campaign. Her campaign fired back at the "waffle" commercial with one of their own focusing on Mr. Specter's support for Mr. Bush.

Beyond Anita Hill

From the outset, Ms. Yeakel's strategy was to make the contest a referendum on Mr. Specter, whose role in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings was the issue she used to leap into the campaign and defeat Lt. Gov. Mark Singel for the nomination earlier in the year.

And to a degree, the race is still, as Mr. Oxman, the Democratic consultant, puts it, "a referendum on" Senator Specter.

But Ms. Yeakel was obliged to move beyond the issue of Anita Hill and the Senate Judiciary Committee to deal with the concerns of a broader constituency with jobs, health care and the like.

And that necessity inevitably frames the issue in terms of experience in the eyes of many voters. Indeed, in one private poll three-quarters of Mr. Specter's supporters cited his experience as the reason.

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