'Losing' is not in the Democrats' vocabulary this year Party's optimism extends to recapturing Congress

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 28, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- Asked if there were any way President Clinton could lose the Nov. 5 election to Bob Dole, Charles B. Rangel dissolved into laughter.

"I don't even think that way," the ebullient Harlem congressman replied. "Anything can happen, you know that."

But Rangel, an old pro in the political wars, is the cautious exception. More than two dozen other Democrats, asked the same question, were at a loss to write a script in which their candidate loses to Republican Bob Dole.

"I can't see anything now and I can't imagine what it would be," said William Daley, brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the state's premier political strategist.

"I just can't see anything out there," he said.

"I don't see how he can lose," said Frank S. McClatchey, the party chairman in McHenry County, Ill. "This is going to be a big Democratic year."

"No, I can't think of anything," said Tom Berthiaume, a retired autoworker and delegate from Massachusetts. "But, of course, I could wake up the day after the election and be dead wrong."

This is the essence of the thinking of Democratic Party leaders, political strategists and rank-and-file delegates who have come here for a four-day convention they expect to be a seamless exercise culminating in the nomination of Clinton tomorrow night.

They are giddy with optimism -- not only for holding the White House but perhaps recapturing control of the House and possibly even the Senate.

Indeed, it is fair to say the only times in recent memory in which such optimism was so pervasive were among the Democrats in 1964 and the Republicans in 1984.

In those elections, the optimism proved justified. In 1964, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson won in a landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater. In 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan did the same over Walter F. Mondale.

The optimism here contrasts sharply with the anxiety among delegates and party leaders at the Republican convention in San Diego who worried about how Dole could make himself a credible alternative to Clinton.

There are, of course, some cautionary notes here.

Bill Lynch, a respected political operative in New York, said, "I don't see how we could lose, but what I worry about is the intensity of feeling and the turnout" among African-American voters, "and particularly in the states we have to win."

Lynch sees no reason to expect defections of black voters even in light of Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill that angered most black political leaders. One unpublished poll, he said, has shown the action was approved by African-Americans, 57 percent to 33 percent.

The danger he sees is that the Republican ticket of Dole and Jack Kemp is not seen in the black community as hostile enough to evoke an intense reaction. "But it's the turnout I worry about," he said. "It's all in the turnout."

Some Democrats worry among themselves about overconfidence. They cite the example of 1988, when Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis led in opinion polls taken just after the Democratic convention by 17 percentage points but still lost to Republican George Bush.

"That's something I keep reminding everyone," said a Clinton campaign adviser, speaking anonymously. "Don't forget Dukakis."

But others scoff at the comparison.

"It's not like Bush coming back against Dukakis," said Mark Green, a New York party activist. "We've got an incumbent president, and everybody already knows all about him."

Although few party leaders are willing to speculate publicly, some Democrats are worried about the possibility of some action by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in the Whitewater investigation.

But the consensus among most politicians is that any late-campaign action by Starr would be seen as a political ploy and given little credence by the electorate.

There is strikingly little concern evident among these Democrats about the potential of Dole's promise of a 15 percent tax cut if he is elected, despite the history of the volatility of the tax issue.

The word being passed down from the leadership is that the polls already are showing that the glow is off the tax plan.

Former Gov. Brendan Byrne of New Jersey is not totally persuaded at this stage, however. "Anything can happen," he said. "There are threatening investigations, and the tax thing might catch on like it did in New Jersey."

The latter is a reference to the success Christine Todd Whitman enjoyed when she won the governorship three years ago by promising tax relief and depicting incumbent Democrat James J. Florio as a high-tax big spender.

Byrne believes the Clinton campaign may have to be more aggressive in rebutting Dole. "We have a job to do on that," he said.

The optimism in the Democratic ranks is being reinforced by fresh opinion polls showing that Dole's gain from his choice of Kemp, the convention and his tax plan has been limited.

Most surveys, including those made nightly for the White House, are showing Clinton leading by about 12 points, down from the 18 or 20 by which he led a month ago but up four or five points from the end of the Republican convention.

The Democratic activists involved in state campaigns are also being given an optimistic picture from the national campaign structure in Washington.

The word from the White House now is that they expect Clinton to be leading by 15 to 18 points after this convention. And they point out that, on the average, trailing candidates make up no more than five or six percentage points after Labor Day.

"I don't want to be in the paper saying this," said a leading professional, "but I think they're poor-mouthing.

"Unless Clinton makes some mistake I can't even imagine, he can win this thing by 20 points. You can't see it coming out any other way."

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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