Lack of vocal supporters could hurt Clinton in '96



WASHINGTON -- There is nothing surprising about the sudden spate of conversation here about whether President Clinton may be confronted with a challenge for the Democratic nomination in 1996. Even as the votes were counted there was pervasive speculation within the political community about who might run against him.

That is a price any president can expect to pay when his party suffers such a thorough shellacking -- and the president himself is seen as a prime cause of the disaster.

The conventional wisdom in these cases is that such a primary challenge is probably doomed to failure simply because any president has several resources at his disposal. In the case of 1996, that advantage is probably exaggerated by the concentration of delegate-selection primaries early in the year, which means a challenger would have little time to put together the money and staff for a big-league campaign.

There is, however, a different element in this equation that suggests Clinton might be more vulnerable than the conventional wisdom would suggest.

And that element is the fact that Clinton is politically naked to his enemies. He has no base of zealous hard-core support within the Democratic Party or the electorate at large. There is no bloc of voters willing to walk the plank for him if necessary.

The best evidence of his situation has been the conspicuous silence from prominent Democrats in the aftermath of the 1994 defeat. No one has come forward to say: "Stop blaming the president -- he's doing a good job and he needs more help."

Clinton was elected by presenting himself as a "new Democrat" who represented a break with the liberalism of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. That image allowed him to win five states in the South and, probably more important, lure back to the Democratic line those working-class voters who had deserted the party twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush -- the so-called Reagan Democrats.

Today the opinion polls show Clinton is poison with those voters. His ratings in the South and with white male voters in general have dropped off the charts. The Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton once headed, has helped things along by suggesting he has one last chance to redeem himself.

This Democratic president also lacks strength with the most reliable party constituencies. Black leaders supported him in 1992 but made no secret of their reservations about him. Jewish voters stayed with the Democrats by a 4-to-1 ratio in the 1994 election, but Clinton has driven a wedge there with his willingness to consider school prayer. Organized labor, still a source of important money and manpower in a primary fight, has always been dubious about Clinton.

Most presidents in peril have some constituencies that provide a floor for them. Facing a serious challenge from Reagan in 1976, Gerald Ford could depend on party regulars and the congressional wing of the GOP. Even Jimmy Carter in 1980 retained strong support among Jewish voters, blacks in the South and conservative Democrats, who could not abide his challenger, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Whatever Clinton's vulnerability, the critical question is whether there is anyone in the party who might be a formidable challenger. There has been some predictable speculation about two of his rivals from the 1992 primaries, Sens. Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin, but neither has the stature within the party to assure broad support. The same is true of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

The rough consensus among political professionals is that there are two scenarios under which Clinton might be denied the nomination.

One would be a challenge from one or more candidates, from left or right, with strong party and public credentials -- such Democrats as Sen. Sam Nunn or House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt. If Clinton were defeated by such a candidate in early primaries, he might be persuaded to step aside, as Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968.

The other scenario envisions a situation a year from now in which Clinton's standing is so bad that party leaders would join in calling on him to step aside and leave the nomination to Vice President Al Gore.

Both of these notions sound far-fetched, even given the results of the 1994 elections. And Bill Clinton has shown that he is a tenacious politician. But he is also in serious trouble without much of a safety net of good will within his own party.

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