Early endorsements no guarantee of victory

April 28, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On the Saturday morning after the New Hampshire primary of 1984, all the major newspapers in Maine carried the same picture on the front page. It showed former Vice President Walter F. Mondale posing on the front steps of the statehouse in Augusta with Gov. Joseph Brennan and almost all of the Democrats in the state legislature.

Mr. Mondale had just lost the New Hampshire primary to Gary Hart in an upset and he needed to win the Maine caucuses to help him remain viable. The picture looked like one of those old photos of the Politburo lining up at the Kremlin, but there was no mistaking the message that party leaders were endorsing Mr. Mondale.

It didn't work. Because of the celebrity he had gained as the surprise winner in New Hampshire, Mr. Hart buried Mr. Mondale in the caucuses as well. Mr. Mondale eventually won the nomination but it was because of Mr. Hart's blunders, not endorsements from other Democrats.

All this is worth recalling as the Gore two leading candidates for their parties' presidential nominations, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, accumulate the endorsements of party leaders by the dozens. As then-Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine learned in the Democratic contest of 1972, all the endorsements in the world won't make up for campaign gaffes or a hot opponent who touches a chord in the electorate as George McGovern did that year.

This has become increasingly the case because of two changes in the political context. The most obvious is the deep-rooted and pervasive suspicion of politicians among the voters. Why should they be expected to take the recommendation of one politician about another?

The second factor is, of course, the rise in the influence of televi- Bush sion on campaigns. There was a time when organization, endorsements and political mechanics in general could be the decisive influence in a campaign. Now the thing that matters most is the image the candidate projects on television -- in news reports and ads.

So the fact that Bill Bradley's only endorsement of any note comes from Sen. Paul Wellstone, the liberal from Minnesota, doesn't mean a thing if the former senator from New Jersey can make a better connection than Mr. Gore with the Democrats of Iowa and New Hampshire.

However, there are sound reasons for a campaign to pile up endorsements. For one thing, they give the candidate a kind of floor of support if they stumble in the early contests but are still viable.

Endorsements also can provide money. A lot of big contributors want the big shots to know they are helping their choices. And in the case of Democratic candidates, endorsements from labor unions can bring both money and manpower. Big labor has lost much of its political clout as the membership of the AFL-CIO has declined. But within the Democratic competition, individual unions can be important in some primary races and caucuses.

There are also a few governors and mayors who have networks of supporters within their states and cities who can help turn out the vote for a favored candidate. But the notion that primary voters will rush to Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush because they have been endorsed by the governor is fanciful.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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