Signals from voters were misread, often ignored in erratic 1992 campaign POLITICAL COMMENTARY

November 02, 1992|By JACK GERMOND

WASHINGTON -- The presidential campaign of 1992 has been a drama of remarkable miscalculations, overlooked warning signals and erratic politics. It ends tomorrow as a far different exercise in democracy from what it was when it began in mid-1991 or even when the first votes were counted in the New Hampshire primary eight months ago.

Voters who have signaled repeatedly their interest in a serious discussion of the issues are being treated in the end to the spectacle of hot accusations of personal and political dishonesty on the part of both President Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, independent Ross Perot, propelled by the largest financial outlay in U.S. political history, yaps at their heels and tries to call down a plague on both their houses.

The campaign has been shorter than usual in U.S. politics, delayed to the early summer last year by Democrats intimidated by the extraordinary popularity President Bush was enjoying in the aftermath of the war in the Persian Gulf.

It was then that the most fundamental miscalculations were made. On the Republican side, President Bush and his strategists clearly believed the figures in the opinion polls -- at one point his approval rating reached 91 percent -- insulated him for the campaign ahead.

On the Democratic side, the most obvious contenders -- House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, Sens. Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Sam Nunn and John D. Rockefeller IV -- decided against running, clearly waiting for more auspicious circumstances.

Their decisions left the Democrats with a field of candidates who in other times would have been more likely considered for vice president -- Governor Clinton of Arkansas, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.

But the most serious miscalculation was made by Mr. Bush. Even when it became clear that the electorate's concern over the economy was crystallizing, the president reacted only by promising to outline an economic program in his State of the Union address two months away. Mr. Bush was, after all, a giant in the polls when matched against a former senator or a small-state governor.

But there was a warning signal last fall that the Republicans might have taken seriously -- the extraordinary upset victory scored by an obscure political neophyte, Harris Wofford, over Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh in a Nov. 5 special election for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

Missed message

The obvious message was that the electorate was not impressed by the establishment -- even a former governor like Mr. Thornburgh -- and was serious about domestic issues. But Mr. Bush and his managers missed it.

Mr. Bush continued to miss warning signs as the campaign became centered in the New Hampshire primary. Confronted by what essentially was always a nuisance challenge from conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, Mr. Bush ignored the signs that New Hampshire Republicans were a different group this year -- preoccupied, even obsessed by the worst economic conditions in the state since World War II.

Mr. Bush responded first by flying in to meet with a group of businessmen and telling them, "Message: I care." Then he arrived with a celebrity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in tow in a transparent attempt to revive the "media events" strategy that had been so successful against Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

His State of the Union address broke little new ground, although Mr. Bush gave Congress a 100-day deadline to act on his tax program, a deadline that passed with little notice. And, perhaps most damaging politically, he continued to insist that the assessments of the economy were "gloom and doom," that things weren't that bad.

The result in New Hampshire was a 37 percent share for Mr. Buchanan that exaggerated his potential -- but clearly spooked Mr. Bush. By the time of the Georgia primary two weeks later, the president was overreacting to the criticism of Mr. Buchanan, firing John E. Frohnmayer as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, even changing his Sunday church plans in Atlanta in order to worship with a Southern Baptist congregation.

A serious electorate

Meanwhile, the Democrats were concentrating on that first priority -- the economy. Mr. Tsongas was attracting impressive audiences of obviously serious voters, enough to put him over the top in the New Hampshire primary with 33 percent of the vote. And Mr. Clinton was demonstrating, by finishing second with 25 percent, that he had the tenacity and political skills to survive the series of disclosures about his personal history that preoccupied the press during the spring -- the Gennifer Flowers episode, his use of marijuana as a student in England and his convoluted efforts to explain how he dodged the draft during the war in Vietnam.

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