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The Men Who: 1988 Campaigns Gird Up and Shake Down : As Democrats Play the Game, Voters Decide the Real Score

THE RUNNING ARGUMENTS: This is the first in a biweekly series surveying the presidential campaign and candidates. Robert J. Beckel has been active in Democratic political campaigns since working for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Stuart K. Spencer, a leading Republican consultant, managed Ronald Reagan's 1966 race for governor and Gerald R. Ford's for President in 1976, among others.

December 06, 1987|Stuart K. Spencer | Stuart K. Spencer served as the senior campaign adviser for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and '84.

WASHINGTON — Election campaigns are like fingerprints--no two are alike. Remember the guys who "walked" their states? Times change. America moves on. An issue or technique that dominates one election may be good for a re-run or may fade in importance before the end of the race it helped win.

The 1988 campaign will again be different. The "game" now being played will soon become serious. Score will be kept in committed delegates. Each state and territory has a particular, often peculiar, method for delegate selection and, for the Democratic Party, you are talking about at least 58 contests. Learning the rules and "road map" for these contests is the campaign's first important work.

Basically contests are divided into primaries (like New Hampshire and California) and caucuses (like Iowa). In a primary state the citizen votes a secret ballot and wastes little time--similar to a general election. In a caucus state, time commitment is longer and there is always the possibility that you will have to declare your choice out loud in front of friends, family and the TV cameras.

Assessing the Democratic field, there are four factors to weigh: candidate, campaign organization, issues and money. Show me the campaign that rates tops in all these areas, and I'll show you the winner 99 times out of 100. Most of the time, no one rates first in all categories. This is particularly true for the organization category--mirroring big league baseball, last year's campaign assistant gets a shot at being this year's manager.

Candidates: While the candidates look physically different, most begin to seem like a "pack" as time goes on. Two stand out: Jesse Jackson because of his fame and his race, and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who, unlike the other other five, does not consult Gentlemen's Quarterly before campaigning. Give the leads here to both. If not yet outstanding, at least they have personalities that register.

Campaign Organization: There is no political juggernaut out there. Not even an organization as good as Walter F. Mondale's in 1984. One that might have been effective, the campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, was decimated in the last three months by the loss of an experienced campaign manager, political director and press secretary. These are heavy hits, impossible to fully recover from. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri has reportedly had organizational difficulties--including the resignation of the press secretary who had been with the candidate for years.

One good sign: Jackson and Simon have recently added seasoned people at high levels of their campaign staffs. A major addition is Simon's new campaign chairman Charles T. Manatt, immediate past chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who will provide a significant bridge between Simon's Midwest-based organization and the California money necessary for a national Democratic campaign.

Issues: Where are they? Sen. Albert Gore Jr. remembered he's from Tennessee, not D.C., and has angled a bit to the right of the pack on defense issues. Simon has promised much, denied little and come out for a balanced budget. I guess he plans to balance the budget with line-item vetoes of his own promises. Overall, there are no real issues out there except "vote for me, I'm better,"--always a burning issue.

Money: My late, great friend, Democrat Jesse Unruh coined the phrase, "Money is the mother's milk of politics." He was right. While starving artists have produced great paintings, starving campaigns produce few winners. Dukakis is the clear leader here with more than $9 million raised. That is enough to be competitive through "Super Tuesday," regardless of the Iowa results. Jackson's campaign style doesn't require lots of money to be competitive through the convention. The others are dependent for new money on their showings week by week. A few poor showings turn off the tap--you wither, dry up and blow away.

These are tough standards for a tough game. But at least in politics, you learn the score pretty fast once the preliminaries are over and the people start voting.

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