Democrats in a dilemma: Run with or from Clinton?

October 09, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- If 1992 was the Year of the Woman in politics, 1994 may be the Year of the Morph.

In the lingo of political consultants, a candidate is "morphed" when his or her image, by dint of computer technology, is gradually altered into the face of someone else in a sequence of pictures in a commercial. This year, Republican consultants are turning the faces of dozens of Democratic candidates into the famous mug of Bill Clinton.

It is not intended as a compliment.

The Republicans tested their morphing strategy last year in a special House election for a Kentucky seat. Joe Prather was the target, and he lost. Encouraged, the Republicans this summer morphed Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, who has been a Clinton ally. Mr. Synar lost in the primary.

This fall, the Republicans are morphing seemingly every Democrat who has said a kind word about Mr. Clinton -- and some who haven't.

"I guarantee you, they're morphing two dozen guys," says Dane Strother, a consultant for Rep. Dave McCurdy, a candidate for the Senate from Oklahoma and another morphed Democrat. "Our guy is just saying: 'If you want to run against Bill Clinton, get in line. You can do it in 1996. But he's not on the ballot this year.' "

It's just over four weeks before the elections that will help determine the shape of the second half of President Clinton's four-year term, and the grim reports keep filtering into the office of the White House political director, Joan Baggett:

* In Wyoming, Texas, Georgia and other states, Democratic candidates have asked the Democratic National Committee to send money -- but not the president.

* In Washington state, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley is trailing in his re-election bid. His Republican challenger is portraying Mr. Foley as too liberal, too long in Washington and too close to Mr. Clinton.

* Nationally, Mr. Clinton's popularity rating hovers below 40 percent -- a figure with ominous implications in the midterm elections for a sitting president and his party.

* Anti-incumbency is proving to be as strong as it was in 1990 and 1992. In 14 states, measures to impose term limits on politicians are on the ballot; all are expected to pass.

What makes this trend dangerous to Democrats and Mr. Clinton is that the Democrats are viewed as the incumbent party.

They have more seats up for grabs than do the Republicans, and they control the White House and both houses of Congress.

Sometimes, the Democrats' own statements reveal how tough things appear for them. This week, Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, complained about a poll in the Maine Senate race for the seat of retiring Majority Leader George J. Mitchell. The poll showed the Republican candidate leading the Democrat by 20 points.

L That's wrong, Ms. Lake insisted; it is only about 10 points.

Anne Gavin, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, sighs and says, "We wish the elections were today."

But they aren't. White House strategists want to deploy the president in a way that staves off this impending disaster. The plan is for Mr. Clinton to continue to raise money for Democrats and to hit the campaign trail in mid-October in places where he is still popular to try to energize the loyal base of party voters.

The president and his party have also started attacking the Republican plan to cut taxes as irresponsible -- and a threat to Social Security. They also are touting what they say is Mr. Clinton's successful legislative record in jump-starting the economy, expanding trade, fighting crime and helping children and the working poor.

"The government is beginning to work for ordinary citizens," Mr. Clinton said Friday.

President frustrated

Aides say the president is frustrated because he believes his message is being obscured by a fog of partisan election-year politics. Asked Friday how he could get his message across to voters disenchanted with him, the president replied:

"Well, what I'm going to do is go out and make sure the American people understand what the choice is. If the American people had been told 20 months ago that . . . we'd have 4.6 million new jobs, the lowest unemployment rate in four years, an unusual number of high-wage jobs coming back into the economy, a serious assault on crime . . . plus the welfare reform bill that I sent to Congress that I expect to pass next year -- to end welfare as we know it -- I think they would have been well pleased."

Ginny Terzano, the deputy White House press secretary, says, "We've just got to keep pointing out that the president came here, tried to make things work in this town, how he broke gridlock on NAFTA, the crime bill.

"Even when he didn't win, like on health care, he took on the special interests. That's what he was elected to do."

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