Dick Lugar: A clean candidate on a dirty battlefield

February 21, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- If the 1996 race for the Republican presidential nomination were a fable, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana would cast himself as the tortoise running against a field of hares. Starting back in the pack and with little hope of --ing to the front anytime soon, he continues to plod on.

On his political record, he has every reason to rate himself a major candidate, even though the voters don't yet seem to agree. He is respected as one of the Senate's most serious and diligent members, a former chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee and present chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

For experience in urban affairs, he can point as well to his eight years as mayor of Indianapolis, and his Indiana farm raises corn, soy beans and trees.

A nice candidate

He is a pleasant, courteous and in every way a conspicuously inoffensive man -- a circumstance that equally conspicuously makes him stand out in this year's contest of slashing and negative politics. He is, in other words, the

kind of candidate voters and the news media alike say is needed to lift the campaign out of the mud.

This potential is keeping Lugar in the competition. He calls the race a "demolition derby" in which "these folks are destroying each other" and "demeaning" the process.

". . . This is a disaster that is unfolding," he says. "After you take all that (negative) horse race off the road, the Dick Lugar candidacy is still there -- a fresh candidacy that is clean, and for non-negative advertising."

Although Lugar unquestionably has run the most positive campaign of all the contenders, one other -- former Gov. Lamar Alexander -- has taken to declaring himself to be the campaign's "clean" candidate.

Alexander has received considerable television coverage as the prime foe of negative campaigning. . . In complaining about what he calls mudslinging, Alexander rivals Lugar for the title of Mr. Clean.

But it was Alexander who first used negative advertising against a fellow Republican this year. When Gov. Pete Wilson of California entered the race, Alexander ran an ad attacking him for breaking his promise to voters, when running for re-election last fall, not to seek the presidency. Lugar says benignly that this competition from Alexander as the anti-negative candidate might hurt him "if Lamar was credible on the issue."

A long shot

Lugar acknowledges that at this stage of the race, being an also-ran in the early contests is a hurdle in itself, with voters asking, as he put it to radio talk show host Jerry Williams here the other day, "Why should we vote for Lugar? It might be a wasted vote."

He answered himself: "A vote for the best candidate is always a vote that is well counted. . ."

While other candidates compete next in primaries in the South and West, Lugar is focusing after New Hampshire on four more New England primaries on March 5. In Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, he hopes to exceed the low expectations for his campaign and gradually draw more attention from voters and the news media.

If he is to succeed, he recognizes, "at some point the national news media will have to give my campaign much greater identification than they have chosen to do."

Until then, he says, "I'm prepared to continue to deal with the retail politics I've been doing . . . in living rooms, schools, on fishermen's boats. . . . This is what, I thought, this campaign was all about."

Lugar says however, that "others have reminded me that all of that has changed. In the large amount of television and radio advertising, negative or positive, we've had a quantum leap. . . .But I still believe I'm going to carve out a niche that is based on that retail campaigning" -- and voter disgust of the other candidates taking the low road.

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

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