The endless wait for the starting gun of a 40-yard dash

January 15, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Nearly 30 years ago, in the run-up to the race for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, George Romney of Michigan set out shortly after his 1966 re-election as governor to explore his chances. His inexperience as a national candidate soon produced a bumper supply of gaffes, reported at length by a small army of reporters following him.

The ridicule prompted Romney strategist Walter deVries to lament of the exploration: ''We wanted this to be off-Broadway. . . . Well, it's off-Broadway, but they've flown the critics in with us.''

That remark and that experience, after which Romney folded his campaign, is brought to mind by the complaint of former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has decried a drought of news coverage of his long-shot campaign. The failure to get more regular coverage all through 1995, he has said, has put increased pressure on him to win support during the next three months, when the 1996 nomination is expected to be decided in a blur of early caucuses and primaries.

Mr. Alexander grumbled here the other day, campaigning toward Iowa's February 12 precinct caucuses, that the problem of getting press and public attention has been compounded by the so-called front-loading of the nominating process this year -- bunching more than 30 state contests by the end of March.

This phenomenon, driven by states' desire to share the benefits previously enjoyed by the kickoff delegate-selecting states of Iowa and New Hampshire and have more say in picking the party nominee, has changed the race from ''a marathon to a 40-yard dash,'' Mr. Alexander said.

Beating the bushes

Until now, he said, although he and the rest of the field of nine (two candidates have dropped out) have been beating the bushes for a year or more. ''nobody's convened the presidential race.'' And with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole leading the pack by as much as 4 to 1 in most polls, Mr. Alexander lamented, ''either Senator Dole is going to walk away with the nomination or it's going to be wide open'' after the Iowa caucuses.

He complained that ''public interest has been following press interest,'' and because the news media have been preoccupied with the budget fight in Washington, he feels he has not gotten a fair shake in press coverage, which at least since Romney's day had been intense.

There have been various reasons Mr. Alexander and his long-shot brethren have not gotten as much news coverage as in past years. First, many news organizations cut back in 1995. Second, there was the field itself: As a group, these candidates aroused little public passion, or created little real news, either personally or with their proposals.

Powell's fandango

Third, the political spotlight has indeed been captured by the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress for the first time in 40 years, especially with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his dramatic confrontation with President Clinton over the government shutdown.

Fourth, the Republican nomination picture was clouded for months in 1995 by Powellmania -- the tantalizing dance of retired Gen. Colin Powell over whether he would or wouldn't seek the nomination himself. That fandango deprived Mr. Alexander and the others chasing Senator Dole of a greater opportunity to be seen and heard.

Furthermore, Mr. Dole's decision to remain in the Senate while seeking the nomination -- second-guessed in some quarters as a possibly critical drain on his time and energy -- proved to be a political master stroke. It kept him in the national limelight in a leadership position and gave him a valid excuse for not campaigning as frenetically as Mr. Alexander and some of the others. He was able to stay pretty much out of the line of fire, at least until recently.

Now that the reality of the ''40-yard dash'' is upon Mr. Alexander and the other challengers, they have to hope not only that the press coverage of which they claim to have been short-changed will come, but also that they will be able to make the most of it.

Most of them, including Mr. Alexander, have decided to use the opportunity to hammer at Senator Dole as either too much a Washington insider, too old, not a true warrior in the ranks of the Gingrich revolution or too conventional to best President Clinton in debate.

If Senator Dole has the kind of Republican support that the polls indicate, however, rivals beating on him instead of making the case for themselves could wind up wasting the spotlight they finally share.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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