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Presidential Hopefuls, Even Bush, Seen Gaining in Midterm Election

November 06, 1986|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — For the 1988 presidential contenders already edging away from the starting gate, Tuesday's congressional and gubernatorial election results helped some winners, most notably New York's Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. His whopping 65% re-election margin broke a 104-year old state record set by Grover Cleveland in 1882; that will help him command attention--and raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

And, in a backhanded way, there may have been a sliver of consolation here and there for some losers. Vice President George Bush is the GOP candidate who has wrapped himself tightest in the mantle of Reaganism. Thus, while not a direct repudiation of Bush, Tuesday's Democratic victory despite a last-minute campaign blitz by the President denied Bush the lift another Reagan triumph could have provided.

Potential Straitjacket

Yet some Bush supporters insisted the solid Democratic victory at least rescued Bush from a potential straitjacket. If the Senate had ended up in a 50-50 split, this argument ran, Bush would have been forced to hang around breaking tie votes, instead of stumping the country.

Similarly, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, while reelected handily in Kansas, lost his job as Senate majority leader. Thus Dole, who has yet to project a clear image as a national leader, lost what he considered an invaluable platform for projecting his views--but he will at least be freer to roam the country pursuing support for his presidential candidacy.

Bush's advisers believe he is now in good position to reap the benefits from the campaign efforts he made on behalf of fellow Republicans this fall. "He went out there and worked hard," said Bill Phillips, executive director of the Fund for America's Future, Bush's political action committee. "That's going to be remembered."

Rivals for Nomination

Yet supporters of Dole and New York Rep. Jack Kemp, Bush's chief potential rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, might take comfort from the response to an NBC exit poll question testing voters' feelings about Bush. Asked whether Bush could be trusted to make the right decisions if he should succeed Reagan, only an underwhelming 48% said yes, while 28% said no and 24% said they were not sure.

But for another potential Bush rival, retiring Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, Tuesday's vote brought discouraging news. The defeat of Republican Senate candidate Jim Santini, whom Laxalt had personally persuaded to run for the seat he is leaving, raised questions about Laxalt's political strength in his own state.

By contrast, on the Democratic side, a presidential aspirant in a similar situation got good news from the voters. For retiring Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, the victory of Democratic Rep. Timothy E. Wirth over Republican Rep. Ken Kramer means that Hart can count on having a powerful friend in office in his home state, while he seeks to promote his candidacy. It also spared Hart the criticism he would have received from fellow Democrats if the party had lost Hart's old seat to the Republicans.

A Likely Contender

Backers of Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., another likely Democratic presidential contender, also professed to see good news in Tuesday's outcome. Mark Siegel, a Democratic Party activist and Biden backer, contended that the Democratic victories in the South signal better sailing for a moderate like Biden than the more liberal Hart and Cuomo.

On the other hand, Bill Carrick, chief political adviser to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, asserted that the election represented a setback for the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, because its strength has been rooted in the statehouses and Democrats lost a bundle of governorships in the South and West.

Carrick's own boss, Kennedy, once the hero of party liberals, took himself out of the 1988 presidential competition last year. But Carrick cited the election Tuesday of such new Democratic senators as Kent Conrad in North Dakota, Rep. Thomas A. Daschle in South Dakota, Brock Adams in Washington and Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. in Georgia--all of whom reflected traditional Democratic liberalism to some degree. Their success, Carrick contended, means that liberalism still will be a potent force in the competition for the 1988 Democratic nomination.

In any event, the widespread Democratic victories in the midterm election signaled the start of a transition period in national politics, a sort of interregnum between the "Reagan revolution" and the post-Reagan era. All of the White House hopefuls in both parties must now adjust to this new reality.

And, while it is too early to tell how this interval will evolve, Tuesday's returns did lay bare some important realities the 1988 presidential hopefuls must contend with:

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