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Lame Ducks and Horse Races : Reagan Era Runs Out As Contenders Jockey for Position

January 04, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

Visions of presidential nominations are also dancing in many heads. Both party nominations are up for grabs and the Iran controversy has the effect of opening up both contests. An uncertain political atmosphere encourages unknowns and anti-Washington candidates who think they can be the next Jimmy Carter. And no one wants to bear the burden of being the front-runner for his party's nomination. Not after what happened to Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

A front-runner becomes a target, "the Establishment" candidate whom all the other candidates can gang up on. In order to maintain his credibility, a front-runner has to defend himself against everyone, everywhere. That's why Vice President George Bush took advantage of the recent Iowa poll showing him falling behind Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in Republican preferences, saying, "Now the expectations are down. I'm no longer a front-runner." You are so the front-runner, replied Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, who relishes the idea of becoming the anti-Establishment GOP candidate. Kemp is obviously jealous of Dole's new prominence as a spokesman calling for full disclosure on the arms deal. Said Kemp's press secretary, "Very few conservatives . . . think making political hay out of this thing by trashing the President is a good thing."

He may be right. Dole has increased visibility as a result of the current crisis--therefore his name recognition, therefore his poll standings. But it is not clear whether he has helped himself among the constituency that really counts-- GOP activists who attend caucuses and vote in primaries, and who are strong Reagan loyalists.

Conversely, Bush's candidacy seems to have been hurt by the Iran episode. He is the National Security Council's crisis manager and has been a key figure in sustaining support for the contras in Central America. The public tends to believe he knew what was going on. A recent nationwide poll by U.S. News & World Report and Cable News Network shows Bush only five points ahead of Dole among Republicans nationwide. On the other hand, party activists may come to Bush's defense precisely because he has not tried to distance himself from the President. "Loyalty is not a character flaw," the vice president said recently.

The Democratic situation is equally confused. Gary Hart, the front-runner in the polls, is doing everything he can to avoid acting like one. He has left the Senate and moved to Denver. In case you are wondering what his plans are, the telephone number of Hart's new office in Denver ends with "1988." To whatever extent the Iran scandal generates anti-interventionist sentiment in the Democratic Party--because of the contra connection in particular--it is likely to benefit Hart's candidacy. He was George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972 and the candidate most identified with the old anti-war constituency. At the same time, Democratic governors such as Bruce E. Babbitt of Arizona, Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts probably see an opportunity to present themselves as untained outsiders who can clean up "the mess in Washington."

Right now, the hottest property in the Democratic Party is Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. Nunn's position as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a member of the Intelligence Committee and the special investigating committee give him a key role in the controversy. He has already established a reputation as the Democrats' chief spokesman on defense policy. After Reykjavik, Nunn offered a stinging critique of what Reagan offered the Soviets. Nunn indicates that he is thinking about running for President. If he does, he will have problems. His voting record, one of the most conservative of any Senate Democrat, includes support for military aid to the contras and for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Still, if Nunn becomes the new Sam Ervin, Democrats may be willing to overlook ideological transgressions. The fact that the Southern regional primary will be the climactic event of the 1988 nominating contest will certainly not hurt.

The Iran scandal has the effect of increasing the volume of political activity while curtailing the likelihood of new policy initiatives. With both party contests now opening up, 1987 looks like a year for plenty of politics and not much policy. Both politicians and the press are highly responsive to voter interests. And when it comes right down to it, which would you rather watch on television--a show about Ollie North or a program about the federal budget deficit?

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