Defining moments defy rebuttals

January 26, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES -- Lee Atwater, the late Republican strategist and master of negative tactics, used to say there was a "defining moment" in almost every political campaign that captured its essence and often determined its outcome. Sometimes it was substantive, other times merely symbolic.

The most memorable in his political experience occurred in 1988 when he ran Vice President George Bush's successful campaign against Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Mr. Dukakis was asked in a debate what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered. Instead of responding emotionally to the provocative question, he soberly expounded on the perils of the death penalty, reinforcing the wide public impression that he was a cold and unfeeling bureaucrat.

Something akin to that episode contributed to the clear loss of Sen. Bill Bradley here in Monday night's Iowa precinct caucuses. In his debate here against Vice President Al Gore two weeks ago, a Bradley non-answer to a question about a Senate vote he had cast against flood relief in 1993 enabled Mr. Gore to present his foe as insensitive to Iowa farmers. Mr. Bradley had an explanation but he didn't give it until later, by which time the political damage was done.

This incident may yet be no more than a footnote to the 2000 campaign. But the history of presidential campaigns in the past 40 years are full of such "defining moments" that provide shorthand explanations for candidates' failures. Here are just a few:

1992: When President Bush was asked in a debate how the federal deficit affected him personally, he couldn't get a handle on the question and finally mumbled something about concern that his kids get good educations--this from a man of inherited wealth. His opponent, Bill Clinton, quickly fielded the question with a compassionate answer and Mr. Bush was a political gone goose.

1988 (again): Mr. Dukakis permitted himself to be photographed riding in an Army tank wearing a helmet that made him look ridiculous, and he became a target of the late-night talk shows.

1984: President Ronald Reagan, the subject of suspicion about age and mental capability after a sluggish first debate, disposed of it in the second, answering a question about it by wise-cracking that he would not make the age of his opponent, Walter Mondale, an issue in the campaign. End of suspicion.

1980: Mr. Reagan again demolished President Jimmy Carter with the simple question to voters: "Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?" They answered at the ballot box with a resounding "No."

1976: President Gerald Ford in another debate against Mr. Carter dug himself in a hole he couldn't climb out of, by venturing that Eastern Europe was not communist-dominated .

1972: Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie cried -- or appeared to cry -- in the snow of New Hampshire defending his wife against printed assaults by the local conservative Republican newspaper and was thereafter judged to lack the steady temperament for the presidency.

1968: Republican front-runner George Romney, governor of Michigan, plagued by uncertainty about what position to take regarding the American involvement in the Vietnam War, told a radio interviewer that he had received a "brainwashing" on a visit to Vietnam. Voters washed that man right out of their hair.

1964: Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater thrilled his party's national convention by asserting that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," thereby playing into the hands of Democratic opponents who were characterizing him as a bomb-rattling extremist.

1960: Republican nominee Richard Nixon needed a shave and sweated profusely under television lights compared with the calm and collected John F. Kennedy and was judged the loser in their first debate (though most who listened on radio told pollsters they though Nixon had won.)

And so it goes. There no doubt will be, as the 2000 campaign unfolds, other "defining moments" to bury a candidate -- or bail him out.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics.

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