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Democrats Size Up a Crew Short of Candidate Stature

August 16, 1987|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — The Democrats' campaign for the presidency is in its infancy, yet the party is already having a mid-life crisis.

Democrats are asking themselves, "What's wrong with the party?" or, more to the point, "What's wrong with our candidates?"

The slighting reference to the declared candidates for the party's nomination has proven contagious. Jokes about "the Seven Dwarfs" have given way to alarm if not panic among Democratic insiders. The talk is now about the "Stature Problem." This translates into a widespread sentiment that the candidates in the race do not have the experience, depth or electability to lead the party in 1988. The expected addition of Rep. Patricia (Snow White) Schroeder to the pack will not enhance the standings of those in the race. Instead it underlines the perceived weakness of those already declared; they are not sufficiently imposing to keep the Colorado congresswoman out. Many Democrats believe that sending one of the present candidates into the general election against the Republicans may be the equivalent of sending a rowboat up against the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz.

This is nothing new. Historically about six months before the presidential election process begins, political parties take a final deep breath, look at their candidates and wish for those who are not there. It happened in 1975 for the Republicans, and Ronald Reagan got in. It happened in 1976 for the Democrats; Hubert H. Humphrey and Edmund S. Muskie stayed out. In 1979, the pressure built on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts for a late entry. He got in. In late 1983, pressure built on Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas to challenge Vice President Walter F. Mondale. He sent regrets.

So it comes as no surprise, as the unofficial Labor Day opening of the campaign season nears, that hearts begin to flutter for those not present and accounted for. The Big Three of Democratic no-shows: Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo and Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.

The attraction is not mutual, in at least two of the cases. Dollar Bill Bradley, former New York Knicks forward, has made clear that this election year does not match up to his personal cycle. He has given his close supporters encouragement to go with other candidates, the clearest sign in politics that "this dog won't hunt."

Cuomo has come under a new round of pressure to run from money groups in New York. He's likely to toy with the idea, but in the end he's a non-starter. Despite all his evident political skills he doesn't want to embark on an arduous national campaign, he hates to travel and he doesn't want to see what happened to Geraldine A. Ferraro's family happen to his own.

And then there is Nunn.

The Georgia Democrat is widely believed to be the most likely of the three to move into the race. He reportedly gave the nod to his supporters last week for them to continue making calls on his behalf. The Iran- contra hearings have enhanced his national standing and with the campaign of a moderate Southerner, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, still not taking off, the door seems open for a Nunn candidacy.

All will not be copacetic for the senator should he decide to get into the race. Nunn is really not well known outside of Georgia. His candidacy will assume there is a large white Southern vote that's looking for a home in the Southern primary and will find it with him. But the Republican primaries the same day are likely to siphon off a considerable portion of his vote. His late start would mean that Nunn enters the race without having warmed up. He hasn't honed his message or gotten the sort of campaign experience his competitors have received on the chicken-and-mashed-potatoes circuit.

His voting record would be less of a problem than many people predict. Clearly a moderate conservative, with a host of votes antagonizing a bundle of special interests in the party, he will have some reassuring to do. However, a dozen years ago another moderate conservative Georgian watched as a half-dozen liberal candidates split the vote among them. Jimmy Carter won the nomination as a moderate while the majority of the party probably preferred someone more liberal.

If Nunn does enter the race, he should be prepared to shrink a bit--no matter how strong a late-appearing candidate is before he declares, he loses a lot of muscle tone once he get in. Kennedy found that out in 1980, when he got in; Humphrey and Muskie already knew it in 1976, when they stayed out.

In fact if history is any guide, the horses in this race are already in the starting gate. There may be some space in this crowded field for one or two more but the odds are that the major contenders are already lined up. Even now it's late in the day to start running. Before the end of September it will be too late to put a respectble campaign together, too late to get the experienced people, too late to get the needed bucks.

For these reasons Bradley and Cuomo will stay out of the race and by September Nunn will decide they are right. Nunn is a savvy politician. He knows there is too much out there for him to master in too short a time. He also knows that a losing run for President will invariably hurt his standing in the Senate. In Nunn's case, his heart may tell him to go but his head will tell him to stay out. He'll pay attention to his head.

So its probably time for the Democrats to stop dreaming of a Cuomo or a Bradley, or even a Nunn. As the primary and caucus season gets under way and Democrats finally choose delegates, most of the declared candidates will fall by the wayside. But one or two dwarfs will grow taller as they win a few contests. There is nothing like winning in politics to give a candidate stature.

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