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November 29, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — "If Mario Cuomo runs for President, he takes up a lot of room," a New York politico said last year. Early this year, Cuomo announced he was not running. As a result he left a big empty space in the party and 1988 was beginning to look like the first Democratic contest in memory without an "old politics" candidate. There seemed to be no one representing the Democratic Party tradition of sharing, family and compassion. There were only pragmatists, neo-liberals and Jesse Jackson.

That is not the only empty space in the party. Another space was created by Southern Democratic legislators who decided that their region did not have enough influence over the Democratic presidential nomination. By the time the nominating contest went South, the moderate-to-conservative Democrats who might be palatable to Southern voters--like Sen. John Glenn of Ohio in 1984--were already weeded out. All that remained were the leftovers from Iowa and New Hampshire, usually liberals like Walter F. Mondale and Gary Hart.

Under the banner, "No more Walter Mondales," Southern legislators organized a regional primary to be held on the first available date in 1988--Super Tuesday, March 8. The problem was that the two candidates closest to Southern Democratic hearts, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and former Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, decided not to run. The Southern regional primary was beginning to look like a highly publicized event without a guest of honor.

Enter Sens. Paul Simon of Illinois and Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. These candidates saw the holes in the Democratic Party--constituencies without candidates--and developed messages to fill those holes. Simon has become the darling of old politics Democrats; Gore, the favorite of Southern conservatives. In both cases, there is plenty of projection going on. Each candidate is projecting himself as something he isn't. And each constituency is projecting qualities onto candidates that they may not possess.

Simon and Gore are displacing the two early front-runners, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Dukakis and Gephardt made the mistake of peaking too early. A candidate who starts early not only builds up support. He builds up expectations. For Gephardt and Dukakis, expectations may have outrun their support. Gephardt is "expected" to win Iowa because he is from neighboring Missouri and has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate. Dukakis is "expected" to win New Hampshire because he is governor of a neighboring state that dominates New Hampshire media.

A candidate has to do two things in order to survive the primaries. He has to hold his base, where he is expected to do well. And he has to win somewhere outside his base, where he is not expected to do well.

Not only did Gephardt and Dukakis build up expectations too fast, their messages began to wear thin. Gephardt's tough position on trade and Dukakis's "Massachusetts miracle" got them off to a good start. But protectionism sounds risky after the Oct. 19 stock market dive; a trade war could lead to recession. And last month's sharp increase in the Massachusetts unemployment rate cast a shadow over Dukakis's economic wonder. The problem is, neither candidate seems to have much else to talk about. Result: Simon and Gore have started to move in on them.

Dukakis' embarrassment over the revelation that his campaign was the source of the "attack video" that destroyed Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware gave Simon his big chance. He picked up the support of the Biden campaign structure in Iowa and surged ahead of Dukakis in the Iowa polls. Simon seems to be the beneficiary, not only of the character issue, but of a much broader theme: the anti-yuppie vote.

That theme is appealing to Democrats who disliked Hart's technocratic political style in 1984 and rallied around Mondale, the quintessential old politics Democrat. They looked at the 1988 field and, at first, all they saw was Jackson and a crowd of yuppies. Until they took a good look at Simon. Simon's bow tie and fuddy-duddy style make him the least trendy and least technocratic politician imaginable. "I stand here as a politician who is not running away from the Democratic tradition," he said in his announcement statement. "I am not a neo-anything."

Remember all the anti-yuppie jokes after the stock market crash? ("What do you call a yuppie in a restaurant?" Answer: "Waiter.") Well, exactly that sentiment created the Simon surge. In fact, more than a few yuppies have joined in. The yuppie life style is an unending quest for authenticity and in a field of synthetic candidates who unravel under heat (Hart, Biden, Dukakis), Simon looks like natural fibers.

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