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Lack of a Running Incumbent Makes 1988 a Year of Opportunity : Jockeying Started for Presidential Race

March 09, 1985|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The 1984 presidential campaign is scarcely over, but already supporters of Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) can subscribe to The 1988 Club newsletter, which promises to report on everything from Hart's ideas on tax reform to his recipe for Denver chocolate sheet cake. Subscription price: $19.88.

The same number, not coincidentally, is on the mind of Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who frequently jokes that his forthcoming authorized biography ought to be sold for $19.88.

Taking Ritual Steps

Although it is considered much too early to talk about a formal presidential candidacy, at least half a dozen senators and representatives are taking the ritual steps traditionally associated with the earliest stages of a national campaign.

For example, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) is stepping up his appearances on the political speaking circuit--telling Democrats that they must woo younger voters in 1986 and 1988. His advice is to "appeal to their idealism."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) recently returned from trips to Ethiopia and South Africa, regions with special political significance in this country, and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) is planning to go to Africa before the year is out.

What these men are doing, many political professionals believe, is "positioning" themselves for possible presidential campaigns in 1988 by working to enhance their national reputations, earn political IOUs among potentially useful constituency groups and individuals, build national networks of supporters and mold images as men of global stature.

'Best Shot in Years'

The process is particularly pronounced this year because, for the first time since 1968, neither party has an incumbent President to nominate in the next election. "All of the most attractive presidential hopefuls in Congress are saying to themselves: 'This may be my best shot for many years,' " a leading Democratic strategist said.

Of the nation's 40 presidents, 26 rose to that office from a seat in Congress--suggesting that the current congressional crop of presidential aspirants may have an advantage over other contenders.

In recent years, however, the election of such Washington "outsiders" as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter has raised doubts among members of Congress about whether their position is still an advantage. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) resigned as Senate majority leader last year to pursue a possible presidential bid, and, in 1986, Hart also may leave the Senate to devote more time to his presidential campaign.

However, for most potential candidates, Congress continues to be a stage on which they can develop national name recognition. Dole, who--unlike his predecessor, Baker--has decided to use his position as Senate majority leader as a steppingstone to a possible presidential campaign, is staking his political future on a highly publicized effort to trim the federal deficit.

Dole Aids Candidates

Dole makes speeches around the country. He has raised more than $451,000 for his own political action committee, Campaign America, which he uses to support congressional candidates. And, his advisers say, he intends to take a visible role in efforts to bail out financially failing American farmers.

When asked if they will run for President in 1988, most congressional contenders respond with similar answers. "It's far too early to be talking about 1988--people are tired of a four-year campaign," Kemp said. "I've concluded that I can't plan anything four years ahead, even if I wanted to go ahead and run," Biden said.

But, when pressed, few rule out a run at the presidency, and how they answer the question seems to make little difference anyway. Although Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) has said flatly that he will not seek the presidency in 1988, few persons seem to believe him. As one of his Senate colleagues put it, "I think Bill Bradley is ready now."

Of all the members of Congress frequently mentioned as presidential contenders, Kennedy is preeminent. After unsuccessfully running against President Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, he decided not to try again in 1984.

No Clue From Kennedy

Whether he will seek the presidency in 1988 is a matter hotly debated within the Democratic Party, but Kennedy refuses to offer any clue. One Democrat described it as "a case where his staff is constantly running and he is undecided."

So far, Hart and Kemp are making the most elaborate preparations for a presidential bid.

Hart has begun writing a book on military reform--an issue that his political advisers view as the centerpiece of a future presidential campaign--and is establishing a center for the nation's so-called "new thinkers." He has recently returned from an overseas trip that included meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko and French President Francois Mitterrand.

Kemp, a popular speaker at political dinners, has used those occasions to build a strong network of supporters and contributors across the nation, and his political action committee, Campaign for Prosperity, has raised about $2 million. As a Kemp supporter explained it: "He has put together a constituency the old-fashioned way--collecting IOUs."

Biden Avoids Iowa

Like Kemp, Biden is accepting speaking engagements across the country, ostensibly to help elect more Democrats to the Senate in 1986. Still, the senator from Delaware is known to have turned down appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first presidential caucus and primary states, for fear of attracting too much attention before he decides whether to run in 1988.

"The worst of all worlds for me to be in is to be perceived as running for President when I'm not running," he said. "It's not helpful for a guy like me, who isn't well known."

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