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Election Hopefuls Enter Spring Training

August 08, 1986|RICHARD N. GOODWIN | Richard N. Goodwin, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is now a writer and commentator in Concord, Mass.

August is not a serious month. In most of the affluent, industrialized world--including Boston--large numbers abandon contemplation of the world's ills and, if their means permit, their painful struggle against the assaults of ungratified desire.

I intend to take my vacation in California, bringing with me the latest news of Eastern sports. Not, as the Lord has ordained, the traditional late-season collapse of the Boston Red Sox, now in agonizing progress. But that other favorite American sport, with a franchise in every town and total exemption from the antitrust laws, the great national pastime of politics.

And, since we are already embarked on our quadrennial search for a savior, the most diverting developments come from the spring-training camps for presidential prospects.

As usual the most noise and the least change come from the camp of the world-champion Republicans, where George Bush continues his gradual progress toward supplanting the retiring Ronald Reagan. A man of Bush's proven skills and wily ruthlessness--so adeptly concealed by a childish manner (remember the Babe)--has little to fear from rookies like New York Rep. Jack Kemp and television evangelist Pat Robertson, who are made to appear formidable by the media's need to create an appearance of serious challenge, and who are destined to be made free agents after the briefest of appearances on the primary playing field, leaving Bush all the stronger for seeming to resist a serious assault from the "ideological Right."

Indeed, if one did not know better it would be tempting to think that Bush had contrived his competition so that he could emerge as the man in the middle.

In the Democratic camp the big news is that the presidential pursuit has become a three-way race. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware is now openly preparing to take on the early favorites, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. He has already, and with wise discretion, enlisted coaching help from some of the most skilled and tested practitioners of presidential politics. He is taking strong, ear-catching positions on publicized issues of the day like the Rehnquist confirmation and the incredible amorality of our policy toward South Africa. And, most important, he is a newcomer in a country where novelty--although often transient--if skillfully exploited is almost guaranteed to open the doors to public awareness.

Can Biden do it? There are two answers: Of course, and it depends. The first because the field is wide open. Neither of the other contenders has accumulated insurmountable public support or private resources. One small triumph, let's say a good showing in the Iowa caucuses, will immediately nullify the advantages of experience and exposure now enjoyed by both Cuomo and Hart.

To accomplish this, Biden must transcend the fact that no previous experience--even as senator or governor--prepares one for a presidential campaign. It is like jumping from AA ball to the major leagues. Unless a candidate has been through it himself, or can choose advisers from that small group of people who have participated, he is almost bound to make a fatal error under the cruelly revealing lights of national attention.

Biden seems aware of this, and is gathering men who might help him avoid the misjudgment.

Ultimately, however, no group of advisers can avoid the testing moments when the candidate stands alone, in front of a camera or a crowd, his destiny determined by the quality of his own instincts, character and mind. Can Biden survive this test? Only those who know him well, and I am not among them, can even make an educated guess.

Cuomo clearly has the inner qualities. Hart's knowledge of the process is unmatched. (That is why he is leaving the Senate.) Biden is a mystery that--now his greatest asset--time and fortune will inevitably unravel.

And what about the big one? The November Classic. Absent a war or egregious scandal, the result will turn solely on the state of the economy. And it now begins to appear that Reagan's hope of sinking untroubled into honored retirement may be frustrated. He has recklessly spent the future to preserve the illusion of a present prosperity. Millions of Americans--the poor and a distressed middle class--have already paid the price of this self-centered greed. Now it is coming to the rest of us, as the American economy begins its inevitable, gradual decline.

If events move too swiftly for deception, and I think they will, then the Democratic nomination will be worth a great deal. Even an office in the White House. After that, of course, it will require the most painful reversals of policy to heal a depressed, class-riven nation.

Whether any of the potential candidates--Hart, Cuomo or Biden--can accomplish that is doubtful, but not impossible. But that is the only significant test that we must apply, striving to penetrate the multitudinous mask behind which each of them is concealed.

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