Democratic club hears Gore, Bradley stand-ins

Election-year ritual precedes endorsement

February 25, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

If this were a Wednesday night less than two weeks before the presidential caucuses in Iowa or the primary in New Hampshire, the candidates themselves would have been in this church basement, along with scads of spin meisters, TV cameras, reporters and pundits.

But because it was two weeks before the March 7 primary in Maryland, these 25 members of the New Democratic Club-2 gathered on North Charles Street had to content themselves with pretzels, a cooler of beer and a couple of jugs of wine while a city councilman and a member of the state central committee debated the merits of Bill Bradley and Al Gore.

It is a scene that has been repeated numerous times in the city and state over the past few weeks as such clubs, in an election-year ritual, consider endorsing a candidate running to be the party's presidential nominee.

What is hard to determine is whether these quadrennial exercises have any significance outside the meeting rooms.

"This is definitely preaching to the choir," said James Kraft, the Democratic central committee treasurer who spoke for Gore to the NDC-2, debating 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran, a Bradley supporter.

Kraft did not mean this group was supporting his candidate -- though most clubs have joined the state's Democratic powers in endorsing Gore, NDC-2 seemed to be a Bradley crowd. He meant that the people who attend these meetings are the ones already paying attention to the primary, who were knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues.

Members of this club, founded in the flurry of reform that accompanied Eugene McCarthy's quixotic attempt to gain the Democratic nomination in 1968 on an anti-Vietnam war platform, lamented the apparent lack of interest in the contests -- no bumper stickers, no yard signs, no buttons, no rallies, no heated discussions.

"The way presidential candidates communicate with the voters is different than it was 12 or 20 years ago," said John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state, who was there to explain the intricacies of the voting process. "It is all dependent on the national media now.

"You will see some signs in the next week, but they will be in conjunction with local candidates," he said.

Back burner

Willis said the Democratic candidates have had some staff presence in the state and are buying local television time, but that Maryland's primary was doomed to back burner status when it moved to Super Tuesday and competed with New York and California for media and candidate attention. Even bumper stickers and literature are scarce.

"We were most influential when we were in May, which we were until 1988," Willis said. "We played a different role at the end of the [nomination] campaign, buoying up the alternatives to the front-runner. Now, I would not advise a presidential candidate to spend a lot of time or resources here."

Experience stressed

In the debate, Kraft -- who lost the coin toss and went first -- emphasized Gore's experience.

"There is no one more qualified to hold the job of president," he said.

"In his career Al Gore has done many things to prepare himself for this position. He is one of the most influential vice presidents in the history of the nation."

Referring to Gore's career, from the military to journalism to the House, Senate and finally the vice presidency, Kraft said, "He is certainly much more qualified to be president than Bill Clinton was in 1992."

Happy with 75%

He said some would wonder "if Gore is left enough for us. But you do learn how to get things done. Seventy-five percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing."

Curran said he was not there to delineate Bradley's positions, referring people to printed materials and the candidate's Web site, but to endorse Bradley's approach to politics and problems.

"Bill Bradley is everything I believe a great Democrat should be," Curran said. "The vice president is not what I think of a really true Democrat. I am looking for the style of politician who can go forth and lead the party."

Questioners pressed Kraft on Gore's position on abortion while representing Tennessee, and if he misrepresented that when he claimed a lifetime of pro-abortion rights beliefs.

In the end, NDC-2 stuck to its iconoclastic roots and decided not to endorse anyone.

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