Mitchell quitting Senate for a road less traveled ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


WASHINGTON -- In his first race for the Senate back in 1982, George J. Mitchell seemed be a world-class stump campaigner, a politician with the knack for sizing up a situation or an audience and adapting his style to the circumstances.

Dropping in at a Franco-American social club in southern Maine one Sunday afternoon, for example, he showed a deft touch in handling the ebullient Franco-Americans who had been celebrating for several hours -- dealing with their offers of refreshment with high good humor and not a hint of condescension. Stopping at a family outing down the road an hour later, he joined a horseshoe match, tossed three ringers in a row and, again, left them laughing.

You would have thought he was a natural. In fact, however, Mitchell had been a wretched campaigner when he ran for governor four years earlier -- and lost a three-way race to an independent, James Longley. This time, running against a well-regarded Republican opponent, David Emery, he won with 61 percent of the vote.

In the interim, however, Mitchell had taken an appointment as a federal judge and then abandoned that lifetime sinecure to accept an appointment to fill the vacancy in the Senate created in 1980 by Edmund S. Muskie's nomination to be secretary of state in the final days of the Carter administration.

Taken at face value, the unlikely lesson seemed to be that George Mitchell was that rare politician who becomes a better candidate from serving on the federal bench. In fact, the lesson was that he was that rare politician who was willing to change directions and learn something new.

As Harold Pachios, a Portland lawyer, Democratic activist and longtime friend of Mitchell, put it, "He's never been afraid of changing courses." Even as a young lawyer, Pachios recalled, Mitchell left a job on Muskie's Senate staff and returned to Portland to be an assistant prosecutor for Cumberland County so he could learn to try cases.

Mitchell's willingness to try something new and different lies behind his decision to retire at the end of this year rather than seek a third term and six more years as Senate majority leader. The imperative this time was Mitchell's feeling that if he ran again, he would feel obliged to serve the full six years and thus would wipe out any options for that time.

"He's 60 years old, and he's talking about the rest of his life," said Pachios.

The options for Mitchell are many. He has been mentioned as a commissioner of baseball and admitted being intrigued by the ++ idea. He has told reporters that he would like to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, although perhaps not an associate justice, a possibility on which he was sounded out by the White House last year. He has the kind of reputation and public persona to be a prize catch -- at $1 million or more a year -- for many big law firms.

At one point, he mused about seeking the presidency. "Of course I'd like to be president," he said one night in 1991, "but this is not the right time. I haven't been here [as majority leader] long enough." Now, with Bill Clinton in the White House for two more years and perhaps for six and with Al Gore in the wings, that opportunity apparently has passed.

Mitchell has always been a politician of many contradictions. Although his studiedly cautious use of the language projected an image of sober judiciousness in appearances before the television cameras, Senate colleagues in both parties considered him a tough partisan and a devoted liberal. Inside the Bush administration, he was demonized as the GOP's most implacable foe.

But privately, Mitchell had begun to weary of harsh hand-to-hand combat and the endless business of alternately cajoling and pressuring other Democrats to hold together a sometimes fragile controlling coalition. By all accounts, his relationship with President Clinton was cordial, but he chafed at self-serving suggestions from some White House aides early last year that he had misled them on the prospects for winning Republican votes for the Clinton economic-stimulus package.

Mitchell would have been odds-on to win another term in November. Now the prospect is for a contest between Democratic Rep. Tom Andrews and, for the Republicans, either outgoing Gov. John McKernan or his wife, Rep. Olympia Snowe.

By the time voters cast their ballots, however, George Mitchell will be ready for another turn in the road.

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