Only 3 years, 8 months till the election Preliminary jockeying: Democrats divided far more than Republicans.

March 16, 1997

FOR THE DEMOCRATS, it is Al Gore or Dick Gephardt for 2000, with only a few darkhorses (Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, Bill Bradley) pawing in their stalls. For the Republicans, it is everybody and nobody. Ever since Wendell Willkie came out of nowhere to win the 1940 GOP nomination, Republicans have had a clear and limited set of hopefuls.

But this time there's a mob scene: Colin Powell, Jack Kemp, Fred Thompson, Bill Bennett, John Kasich, John Engler, Tommy Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Voinovich, Pete Wilson, Bill Weld, Christy Whitman, Tom Ridge, Trent Lott, George Bush Jr., Dan Quayle, John McCain, Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole, Pat Buchanan.

In a curious way, this has led to a singular lack of tension in GOP ranks. There is no front-runner who has to be built up or headed off. Republicans bit by the presidential bug can go about their business in a relaxed manner.

Not so with the Democrats. The vice president is blessed and/or stuck with all that President Clinton stands for. This means egg on his face over 1996 campaign fund-raising blunders; but it also means two straight national victories and a vibrant economy that could produce a third win if it lasts. Al Gore is probably content. He inherits Clinton centrism -- a rhetorical shift to attract mainstreamers without doing things to send them fleeing elsewhere.

This could prompt a challenge from the left by House Minority Leader Gephardt, who is distancing himself from the administration on trade, entitlements and other issues.

While conservatives who dominate the Republican Party have their problems with moderates, as witness Senator Lott's failure to keep the Thompson hearings from pushing campaign funding reform, the GOP's schisms are scant compared to the Gore-Gephardt rift. The rift has already provoked disputes between the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and a new "Campaign for America's Future" organized by the left-liberal party faction.

Although pro-Gore, the DLC looks benignly on Senator Kerrey as an anchor to the right to counter a leftward Gephardt candidacy. While many Americans will be bored by preliminary jockeying so far in advance of the 2000 election, it serves a purpose in defining issues of fundamental importance. How the nation deals with its long-term budget problems is something that must not be postponed. Decisions based on genuine political dialogue are needed now.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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