Democrats relish GOP dogfight Divisiveness: White House aides can't hide their pleasure at seeing the Republican contenders savage one another's reputations and campaign funds

Campaign 1996

March 03, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Each day, a packet of news clippings is circulated inside the White House chronicling events in the world of politics and government. Increasingly, this file contains news that is music to the ears of President Clinton.

The good tidings come in reports of how the Republican presidential candidates are cheerfully cutting one another to ribbons, spending themselves into oblivion and, in the process, seeming to showcase their weaknesses as potential challengers to Bill Clinton.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is called "Beltway Bob" by Patrick J. Buchanan. Or too old. Or inarticulate. Or mean.

Mr. Buchanan is "angry" or "negative" or "extremist" -- so say top aides to Lamar Alexander. Mr. Alexander's get-rich-quick business dealings are denounced by none other than Steve Forbes, who, in turn, is accused by Mr. Dole of wanting to "buy the election."

But Mr. Dole is spending freely, too. They all are. All told, the eight Republican candidates have thrown around about $150 million already, much of it on negative ads that mock Ronald Reagan's famous directive not to speak ill of a fellow Republican.

"We Democrats invented the circular firing squad," said Dane Strother, a campaign consultant. "Finally, the Republicans have formed one of their own!"

"Isn't it grand?" quipped Ann F. Lewis, deputy manager of the Clinton-Gore campaign.

Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, termed the Republican candidates "the rabble on the other side of the fence."

And yet that is about as far as the Clinton team wants to go publicly. The president's aides maintain that election year gloating should be done in November, not in February or March.

"About this time in 1980, every single Democrat was licking his chops at the opportunity to run against this guy -- Ronald Reagan," Mr. McCurry observed. " 'Wouldn't that be easy,' they thought. Well, they were wrong."

With this lesson in mind, strict instructions have emanated from the Oval Office about expressing too much glee about the Republicans' nasty intramural fight -- or about publicly predicting who would be easiest to beat in the fall.

Still, there are few secrets of this nature in politics. Some White House officials originally suggested that Mr. Alexander would be the most dangerous opponent. But after accounts of his past business dealings received widespread news media coverage, aides backed off that one.

"This was a candidate who couldn't mention the word 'Whitewater,' " one official said. "I'm not sure we would have minded that."

But it is the twin possibilities of the fiery conservative Pat Buchanan and the multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes -- neither of whom has ever held elective office -- that really make Democratic hearts go pitter-patter.

Chance to regain House

This is especially true regarding Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Strother, whose consulting firm lost several congressional clients to retirement last year, says he believes that if Mr. Buchanan were the Republican nominee, the Democrats would have a good shot at regaining control of the House -- and of deposing Rep. Newt Gingrich from the speaker's chair.

White House officials were overheard this week delighting in the latest round of Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan jokes peddled by late-night network talk-show hosts.

Jay Leno said Mr. Buchanan had welcomed minorities "to hop aboard the Buchanan bandwagon," adding, "Of course, they have to sit in back."

David Letterman made Mr. Forbes the target of his Top Ten list -- of things Mr. Forbes had presumably done after winning the Arizona primary. (Sample: Number 5. "Gave everyone who voted for him a Buick.")

Some Democrats insist that in Mr. Forbes and Mr. Buchanan, the Republican Party is reaping what it has sown. Regarding Mr. Forbes' use of his personal fortune to try to win the nomination, Ms. Lewis chuckles and says, "Is this not pure Republicanism -- an example of the free market at work?"

Ms. Lewis said she finds "grim justice" in the realization by Republican regulars that they can't control the Christian conservatives they've lured into the fold -- and who gravitated toward the maverick Mr. Buchanan in the first round of primaries.

At the same time, there are a couple of countervailing strains among the Clintonites. First, they remain curious -- and not idly so -- about the possibility that retired Gen. Colin L. Powell could still somehow end up on the Republican ticket.

"What do you think he'll do?" asked deputy press secretary Mary Ellen Glynn.

A soft spot for Dole

There is also sympathy for Bob Dole -- even though exit polls in early Republican primaries suggest that he would be their strongest opponent.

For some, that's because they have a soft spot for a national figure running for the White House for the third and, almost certainly, the last time.

For others, it's that during the lengthy budget impasse between the White House and Congress, they found Mr. Dole to be a reasonable and honest adversary.

For a few, it's simply that Mr. Dole is the only Republican candidate they believe has the stature and the substance to actually be president.

"Bob Dole is somebody we could turn the keys to the country over to," said one White House staffer.

"The others? Man, I don't know."

This aide says that Mr. Clinton -- though he has no intention of losing to Mr. Dole -- has similar feelings.

One campaign aide cautioned against going "a bridge too far" on the point about Mr. Dole, adding, "The idea is to win, you know."

Mr. McCurry gave voice to this sentiment when asked last week whom he would like to see as the nominee. "How about that guy Morry Taylor?" he deadpanned. "Is he still out there? He'd be good."

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