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THE CAMPAIGN THAT NEVER WAS : A Pat Schroeder Strategist Tells the Inside Story of the Colorado Congresswoman's Try for the Presidency

November 15, 1987|KATHY BONK | Kathy Bonk, media director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, was part of the team that engineered Pat Schroeder's exploratory campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination

WASHINGTON: Jump-Starting a Presidential Campaign

"SO, WHAT DO you think?" Pat Schroeder asks us. "Should I think about running for President?"

It's June 5. A month ago, Gary Hart withdrew suddenly from the 1988 race, and today a small group has gathered in Schroeder's Washington congressional office. It's as comfortable as a living room, with well-tended plants and family photos scattered about. Cheerful posters--there's one of a bear on a bicycle, another of Eleanor Roosevelt--dominate the walls.

Friends and supporters have been calling to urge her to run in Hart's place, and Schroeder is clearly tempted. Until now, the Denver congresswoman's closest brush with presidential politics had been as national co-chair of Hart's campaign. But with her friend and fellow Coloradan out of the race, the political world has shifted. If Hart could have nearly won the nomination in 1984 with a campaign that was essentially started with rubber bands and paper clips, shouldn't she, Schroeder, at least launch an exploratory campaign?

Her question, though, wasn't at all what I'd been expecting earlier that morning when I got a routine call from Andrea Camp, Schroeder's press secretary and an old friend, looking for help on a bill. I'm media director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, and I'd been working with Schroeder and Camp on women's issues for almost a decade. "Pat's leaving town, so you better get up here as soon as you can," Camp had said, excitement creeping into a voice that is usually all crisp efficiency. "And by the way--she may ask you what you think of her running for President."

And now Camp, the congresswoman's administrative assistant, Dan Buck, and I are consumed by curiosity. None of us quite realizes that we are stepping into a summer-long political marathon across the country that will bring Schroeder achingly close to declaring her candidacy for the nation's highest office.

Eagerly, we tick off reasons why Schroeder should explore a possible candidacy. Her political resume is sound: She's a Harvard lawyer and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. She has support from women's activists and environmentalists. And, I argue, a presidential race is the next step for women in politics. This could well be a symbolic race, like Jesse Jackson's 1984 campaign, because Schroeder would be starting very late. Still, it might be worth it if she could bring women's issues to the forefront.

The argument doesn't sway Schroeder. "I know I don't want to run as a symbol. No suicide missions," she says calmly, taking precise notes on a legal pad. "I'm not out for a forum. I've got a perfectly good one in Congress. I really don't want to be perceived as being only a women's candidate." Nor does she want to run for vice president. "It's not worth it to me to lose the seniority (in Congress)," she says. "If I do this, if I really run, it has got to be to win."

The discussion turns to the risks of running. Schroeder wouldn't have to file for her congressional seat until well after the first wave of primaries, so she wouldn't be jeopardizing her chance to stay in the House. If she kept the initial explorations small and didn't spend any more than she raised, she wouldn't have to pay off a mountain of debt. But somehow in our excitement we never discuss what will later become some of the toughest problems of the Schroeder organization: the difficulty of raising money and the complex technical rules that determine how to get convention delegates on ballots so late in the campaign season. Instead, we convince ourselves that with the support Schroeder has among politically skilled feminists, peace activists and environmentalists, she will be starting with resources that other candidates would take months to earn.

We agree to think about doing some kind of public announcement in a week or so, and I head for my office. Then, as Schroeder scrambles to leave for a flight to Denver, she picks up a call from an Associated Press reporter. "I understand you're thinking about running," he says. Yes, I've been thinking about it, she replies nonchalantly. After a brief chat, she leaves for the airport.

But in a little more than an hour, the story appears on the wires and Cable News Network. Calls start to pour into Schroeder's office--and mine is one of the first. "Come on," I say when Dan Buck answers. "What's the deal? I thought Pat was going to think about this for a couple of weeks."

Buck laughs wearily. "I don't know what Schroeder said," he replies, "but I've got 50 press calls on my desk."

The next day I'm amazed when I drive by a newsstand and see The New York Times: There's a photo of Schroeder at the top of the front page.

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