'96 primary fight to oust Clinton isn't very likely



WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- A Democratic activist sidled up to a visiting reporter here the other day, glanced around furtively to .. see if he could be overheard, then asked: "Is there any chance someone will run against him in the primary?"

This is something political reporters are hearing with increasing frequency these days -- in Washington as well as North Carolina -- as Democrats stew over the parlous political situation of President Clinton.

To a large degree, it is predictable and harmless speculation growing out of Democratic frustration and fear of the prospect of another one-term president.

As a practical matter, however, there is little or no prospect that Clinton will face a serious challenge. There are no obvious alternatives. And even if there were, denying a nomination to a sitting president is a formidable undertaking.

The gossip these days focuses on two Democrats in the Senate -- Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, both unsuccessful competitors with Clinton in the contest for the 1992 nomination who were eliminated early in the primary season.

Kerrey has attracted attention with his conspicuous displays of independence from the White House, beginning with the budget package in 1993, which he ultimately supported, and more recently with his decision to break with the White House on health care reform.

Kerrey is a favorite for speculation because he has a reputation as a quirky politician who marches to a different drummer. But it is also true that he is running for re-election this year in a state in which displays of political independence are considered sound politics.

Harkin has attracted attention recently with sharp criticism of Clinton. The Iowa Democrat, an unreconstructed liberal, has never reconciled himself to the "new Democratic" centrism that Clinton espoused in the 1992 campaign.

And, unlike Kerrey, he has no immediate re-election challenge to explain his willingness to criticize the embattled president.

But political history teaches a clear lesson about how difficult it can be to unseat an incumbent.

Late in 1979 Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts set out to challenge another Democratic president with weak approval ratings, Jimmy Carter.

Early opinion polls made it appear eminently possible. Kennedy, moreover, had a built-in constituency of liberals who had always viewed Southerner Carter with some suspicion.

But Kennedy still carried the political baggage of Chappaquiddick and, perhaps more important, was never able to put forward a defensible rationale for replacing Carter.

The result was that his campaign fell short even in states such as New Hampshire and Maine where he might have expected to be strongest.

The one challenge that came closest to success came in the Republican Party in 1976 when Ronald Reagan ran against Gerald Ford all the way to the convention in Kansas City before falling short.

Reagan enjoyed the support of a strong cadre of conservatives who had been hoping to put him into the presidency as early as 1968. And Ford was an appointed president who had succeeded to the office after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon in 1974 and appeared extremely vulnerable to the rising Carter.

Even under those relatively auspicious circumstances, Reagan was finally rebuffed by the party regulars, who saw greater peril in changing horses than sticking with Ford.

On the face of it, any challenge to Clinton would face even more imposing obstacles. This is a Democratic president who has been aggressive enough in pressing the party's agenda so that a challenger would have a difficult time developing a rationale for change on the basis of issues.

Issues aside, any insurgent would confront a monumental practical problem.

Several major states -- including California, New York and Ohio -- have moved their 1996 primaries to earlier dates, which means that the nomination will be settled for all practical purposes sometime in March.

That, in turn, means a challenger would have to make a lightning strike to capture a majority of delegates from the outset.

The bottom line is that Bill Clinton is going through a rough patch right now.

But the notion of someone taking away the nomination in 1996 is too far-fetched to be anything more than idle speculation.

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