WASHINGTON — For the second time this year, the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination is starting over.
Just as the forced withdrawal of erstwhile front-runner Gary Hart last May shook up the overall campaign, so the recent combined misfortunes of Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis have shattered prior assumptions and created new opportunities.
Not all of the dust has settled yet from the storm created by Biden's departure from the competition and the subsequent wounding revelation that Dukakis' campaign had helped to precipitate Biden's downfall.
But at this early stage, the three remaining contenders who seem to have the best opportunity to take advantage of the changed situation are Illinois Sen. Paul Simon on the left, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in the center and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. on the right.
Two of their three competitors--the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dukakis--are still very much in the race. Dukakis is the runaway leader in contributions with about $8 million so far, and Jackson still leads in many polls. The sixth candidate, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, is hoping for an upset in the Iowa caucuses that could propel him into a front-running role.
But the new environment of the Democratic race has not changed the fortunes of Jackson and Babbitt, and it has hurt Dukakis. Jackson, despite major efforts to broaden his appeal, has yet to show that he can gain substantial support outside the black community. And Babbitt is handicapped by difficulty in raising funds and inconsistent performance in the television debates.
Meanwhile, Simon, Gephardt and Gore, reading roughly from left to right, have begun to show strengths within the party's ideological spectrums that offer them chances for growth.
Those ideological placements are at best crude approximations. The clearest lesson from the first months of the Democratic presidential campaign is that distinctions between the candidates have less to do with policy and programs than with tone, style and what has come to be the dominant buzzword of the 1988 contest--character.
To many Democrats, notably the last one to win the White House, Jimmy Carter, the current emphasis on such qualities as trust and integrity is reminiscent of the post-Watergate environment that Carter masterfully exploited by promising the electorate: "I'll never lie to you."
"Carter said the mood now is like the mood when he ran in 1976," said Simon's campaign manager, Brian Lunde, who met with the former President at his Plains, Ga., home last week.
"The words 'liberal' and 'conservative' don't mean much right now," said Emilie Holroyd, a Democratic national committeewoman from West Virginia, after listening to all six remaining candidates debate at a national committee forum in Washington.
Although Gore and Simon are considered to be at the opposite edges of the party's ideological spectrum, Holroyd said they both have strong support among West Virginia activists, for reasons that have little to do with ideology.
"When they talk," she explained, "you believe they know what they are talking about and they believe what they are saying."
The stress on such character traits as sincerity can be traced to a series of disillusioning disclosures transcending party lines, beginning with last winter's revelations of the Iran- contra scandal. Then early in the Democratic campaign came evidence of Hart's apparent involvement with a young model, which crippled his candidacy.
The most recent traumas--the acknowledged plagiarism and misrepresentation by Biden coupled with the fact that Dukakis' campaign manager, John Sasso, had triggered the damaging revelations by supplying videotaped evidence to journalists--has had a twofold impact on the Democratic campaign.
In the first place, those combined events reinforce the emphasis on personality traits rather than policy distinctions, thus blurring the outlines of the race.
For example, though Gore has labored in recent campaign debates to depict himself as tougher on foreign policy and national security issues, his campaign manager, Fred Martin, said the character traits implied by Gore's arguments may be at least as important as the policies themselves.
"One effect of what Gore is doing is to demonstrate personal qualities--independence, forthrightness and doggedness in the face of adversity," Martin said.
More directly, not only was Biden forced out of the race but Dukakis no longer appears to be the strongest campaigner. That means all of the contenders lost a reference point against which they could measure their own candidacies.
"Now there is no front-runner," said Gephardt's campaign manger, William Carrick, whose strategic blueprint had contemplated Dukakis in the lead with Gephardt, his chief challenger, eventually overtaking him in the Southern Super Tuesday primaries on March 8.
Chief Adversary in Iowa