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Battle for the South Begins : Nunn Agonizes, Rules Out Presidential Race

August 28, 1987|JACK NELSON | Times Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON — Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who has agonized over his decision for months since leading Democrats urged him to run for the party's 1988 presidential nomination, announced Thursday that he will not make the race.

Despite surprising offers of political and financial support, Nunn said, he decided against running because of the impact that a presidential race might have on his family and on his responsibilities as a senator.

His decision, awaited anxiously by seven Democratic contenders who have either already announced or signaled their intention to run, clears the way for them to seek the support of party stalwarts and key Southern political operatives who had favored a candidacy by the popular Georgia senator.

Prominent Democrats, including former party Chairman Robert S. Strauss, called Nunn's decision a major development that opens the way for a battle royal leading up to next March 8, or Super Tuesday, when 14 Southern and border states will choose about 30% of all delegates to the Democratic nominating convention.

Had Urged Nunn to Run

"The battle for the political support of the South is now on, and it's crucial," said Strauss, who had urged Nunn to run. "The nomination of a Democrat who cannot make inroads in the South would be the nomination of a loser."

Among the Democratic contenders, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt from the border state of Missouri and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, the only Southerner in the race, apparently stand to gain the most from Nunn's decision.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson might also pick up some delegate strength should white voters in the South be disillusioned with the current crop of Democratic candidates and either not turn out or vote in Republican primaries on Super Tuesday, where that is permitted. Political analysts generally expect that Jackson will draw heavy support among blacks, who represent a sizable share of the Democratic vote in the South.

About 70 congressmen, including 35 Southerners, already have announced their support for Gephardt. And a Gephardt campaign spokesman said that the congressman had received pledges of support from 15 other colleagues from the South even before Nunn's decision.

Gephardt, who immediately picked up a phone and began calling Georgia congressmen, said: "Sam's decision should cause us to redouble our efforts to build a Democratic Party that can appeal to North and South--a party that can carry those states which were so long a part of the Democratic heartland and which we must carry to win in 1988."

Gore Encouraged

Now that Nunn has decided not to run, Gore said, "I can say that there are an awful lot of people around the country and in my native South and in Georgia who told me that, in the event he doesn't run, they're going to look favorably on my candidacy. So I'm encouraged by that."

Gephardt and Gore have spent considerable time in the Super Tuesday states this summer.

A Gore spokesman reported that since May 1 the senator has campaigned 31 days in those states, "considerably more time" than he has spent in Iowa, where the first party caucus will be held on Feb. 15, or in New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held on Feb. 23.

A Gephardt spokesman said that, since June 1, the congressman has spent 24 days in Super Tuesday states, 11 in Iowa and 7 in New Hampshire.

Nunn's decision, from all accounts, was wrenching. In debating his course, he met with aides in his Atlanta office Wednesday way past midnight, then went to bed without announcing a decision. Early Thursday morning, he called key supporters and said he had finally decided he should not make the race.

"I went to bed thinking he would run," said one key supporter who asked not to be identified. "When he called, he said he had awakened at 3 o'clock in the morning worrying about it, and he said: 'I knew I would regret it terribly either way I decided to go.' "

Voting Record Cited

Another Nunn supporter, former Democratic Chairman John C. White, said he had told the senator in a telephone conversation Wednesday night that he would have a real problem winning the party's nomination because of his conservative voting record. "But he said he was still thinking hard about running, and I went to bed thinking he would run," White said.

Nunn, 48, a conservative and one of the nation's most influential voices on arms control and other defense issues, said last February that he would delay a decision about the 1988 race because of his assignment with the Senate committee that held hearings on the Iran- contra scandal.

In a letter he sent to supporters Thursday, he said his responsibilities as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee "weighed heavily" in his decision.

"Our committee faces many challenges in the next few months on matters relating to national security, foreign policy and arms control," he said. "I know myself pretty well, and I have concluded that, if I attempted to run for President and also carry out my duties, I would wind up doing neither well.

"With a son in high school and a daughter in college, I am also concerned about the impact of a presidential campaign on my family."

'Impressive' Candidates

Nunn said the Democrats have "an impressive slate of candidates actively campaigning, with the possibility of others entering the process," and he added: "I am confident that we will have a well-qualified nominee for the 1988 general election."

The other contenders are Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Jackson.

Recent polls indicate that Dukakis has an overwhelming lead in New Hampshire and is locked in a tight race with Gephardt for the lead in Iowa.

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