IRVINE — It's still early, not premature--but early. The Democrats have been out and about the country for a long while, some for two years. In eight days, in Iowa, the people start telling the candidates if it was worth the effort.
Some say that no Democratic candidate caught on in 1987. But that's normal when there is no dominating personality or cutting issue. You could throw a tarpaulin over straightaway left field and ideologically cover this year's contenders. With no divisive issues, they argue over minutiae in debates. But, at this point, debates are fought in the style of prizefighters who hope to score some points and avoid a knockout. This is most true for front-runners (in double digits somewhere). The trailers are more like boxers behind on points, trying to throw a haymaker.
The goal for all candidates is to be noticed and they have been at it unceasingly. The "first six" were all hurt a bit by the re-entry of Gary Hart. It's hard to get people to notice you and listen when the media is concentrating on the new guy back in the race and the "idea" of his return. But being noticed is less than the half of it--it's being remembered.
In evaluating an election, the things to look at are candidates, campaign organization and message. The message is not a candidate's basic speech--no one remembers the words. Instead, it is what the listener (voter) retains when the speech is over and the candidate has moved on to the next event. The message has to bite in order to stick and the candidate needs one to be remembered by. The campaigner with no message leaves a negative one--he is remembered for its lack, if at all.
The candidate to watch in the Iowa Democratic caucus is Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. He has some money, but not the most. He is presentable, but not charismatic. He is, however, the candidate who has been in Iowa longest--and has one of the better organizations with veterans from prior Iowa campaigns. This is to the good, but it is not what has raised him from near the back of the pack to the front. Moving up is the result of saving his money and getting on television with ads that leave a message, and repeating the same message in his personal appearances. Life imitating television, maybe, but it works.
The message in this case is twofold: "He cares about family farms" and "He will stand up for American workers against unfair foreign competition." These may not be the messages that can win the country in November, but in a seven-man fight in Iowa, they probably will win a plurality--and finishing first does not have to be explained away by a squad of spin doctors.
Timing is almost everything in politics and, as this is written, Gephardt may be peaking. But you should only worry about peaking too early if your opponent has a message. I don't see either of the other tri-leaders--Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois--with one. They have speeches, ideas (new and old) and resumes, but these are no substitute for a message.
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, not a front-runner but just at double digits, has a message--a sort of clear-headed fiscal toughness. That message, however, exemplified by his advocacy of means testing Social Security recipients, is probably the wrong one for a Democratic contest in a state that ranks among the top in percentage of senior citizens.
In a week or so we'll all know--but I always like the candidate with the message who had enough dough to get his message across and is moving. Candidate, campaign, message--the combination works nearly every time.