Democrats find bid to unseat Hatch a tough sell

April 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SALT LAKE CITY -- They had a great race for the U.S. Senate. But almost nobody came.

For months, even years, Democrats in this state have talked excitedly about their chance to defeat Sen. Orrin Hatch, a three-term Republican who enraged many women and Democrats with his sharp-tongued treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.

BTC But then, a parade of Democratic prospects engaged in a self-destructive shuffle that a party official characterized as "walking to the edge of the water and not jumping in."

The Democrats did not come up completely empty-handed. A half-hour before the filing deadline last month, a 46-year-old lawyer who has never held office, Pat Shea, stepped into the breach.

Utah is not the only state this year where there may be missed political opportunities. Other problem states for Democrats include Vermont and Washington, where party leaders have been unsuccessful at persuading their preferred candidates to run.

Although Sen. Bob Graham of Florida heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the best his own state could ** come up with was Hugh Rodham, whose main selling point was that he is the brother of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Though the problem is especially acute with Democrats, the Republicans are also having trouble prodding "electable" candidates to run, particularly in Senate races in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Even in an era when voters want change, many prospects are put off by the huge sums they must raise to be competitive in an era when triumphant Senate candidates often spend $4 million.

Beyond the money, many potential candidates say they simply do not have the stomach to endure bitter political battles.

The obstacle that is least tangible and perhaps most difficult for the parties to overcome in their recruitment is that the allure of political office has faded, with fewer people willing to endure the frustrations of Washington or the campaigning to get there. It is no coincidence that eight senators and more than 40 House members are retiring this year.

That is what Donald Schweitzer, the political director of the Democratic National Committee, was confronting when he and other party officials traveled here to try to persuade a wealthy business executive named Doug Anderson to take on Mr. Hatch.

Mr. Anderson came close to running, but in the end backed out.

"A successful person like Doug Anderson takes a look at what happens to an awful lot of people like him," Mr. Schweitzer said. "Every single thing they ever did in their life, both business and personal, gets torn apart. More and more when you're talking to prospective candidates, this is a factor to their walking to the edge of the water and not jumping in."

In Utah, Mr. Anderson had plenty of company on the water's edge.

Rep. Bill Orton had been the party's leading prospect, with early polls showing him at least even with Mr. Hatch. But he was also the first to bow out -- under pressure from a faction in the party that opposed his anti-abortion stand and favored an other candidate, Grethe Peterson, who portrayed herself as best able to capitalize on Mr. Hatch's performance in the Thomas hearings.

Though his largely conservative views would have made him more appealing than Ms. Peterson to the state's independent voters, Mr. Orton was also daunted by the incumbent's formidable head start in fund raising.

"I was the only candidate who could beat Orrin Hatch," he said. "In essence, the party screwed up. They couldn't get their act together in time."

Not long after Mr. Orton pulled out of the race, Ms. Peterson also withdrew, complaining that she was "spending 80 percent of my time raising money."

So Democrats were left struggling to rally around Mr. Shea, a Harvard Law School graduate who served in important positions on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, including counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is a respected Salt Lake City lawyer and a former state party chairman.

But he lost a primary for governor in 1992, his only previous bid for elective office, and after so many false starts, there seems to be limited enthusiasm for Mr. Shea.

Democrats here sense that he entered the race too late to assemble a team skillful enough to raise the money to compete with Mr. Hatch, who has already stockpiled at least $1.2 million.

Mr. Shea is well aware of the obstacles. While he made clear that he would run an aggressive campaign, he suggested that his overriding motive was to prevent Mr. Hatch from getting a free ride.

"To me, the most important thing is that Utah has to be competitive," he said. "I have a deep commitment to politics and making the system work."

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