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Front-Runners, Also-Runners and Flops : Gephardt's Win Blurred the Field

The Running Arguments: A Continuing Series Surveying The Presidential Campain And Candidates.

February 14, 1988|Stuart K. Spencer | Stuart K. Spencer served as senior campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

IRVINE — Iowa may be where the corn grows tall but that state's Democrats didn't do much to separate the wheat from the chaff this year. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri finished first followed by Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis--with Jesse Jackson and Bruce Babbitt trailing, leaving Gary Hart and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee just blips on the radar screen. Yet five guys are still alive to one degree or another and that means the Iowa "cut" for New Hampshire was not sharp. The outcome was blurred.

First the goodbys--one quick, one fond. Goodby Gary Hart, the people got your drift last May and gave you the message Monday that it's time to go.

Former Arizona Gov. Babbitt finished fifth behind Jesse Jackson, with about 6%. That's not enough to go on very far. His end will come later this week after New Hampshire. Babbitt truly was the candidate of challenging ideas--such as paying the country's bills and ending the hayride. Unfortunately for him and the country, fiscally tough solutions do not appear to sell well in Democratic caucuses. As Al Smith said in referring to the New Deal and the reelection of Franklin D. Roosevelt--"They don't shoot Santa Claus." Unfortunately, they do shoot the grinch. Good luck Bruce, you deserved better.

Now to the survivors and a few thoughts on each.

Gephardt : Hats off. Gephardt stuck to his game plan--combined organization and money with a message--and won. He went on to New Hampshire trying to come as close to Dukakis as possible. He will get a fair boost in fund-raising, but with a big Republican story coming out of Iowa, particularly the Robertson surprise, he will not get the bounce Hart got four years ago. If he finishes a strong second--or even just second to Dukakis in New Hampshire--he is set up to be a player for Super Tuesday, the Midwest spring contests and beyond.

Simon : Another near Lazarus act. Dropping like a stone two weeks ago, his free-fall was stopped and he rose again, probably on the strength of the Des Moines Register endorsement. He ran well among traditional tax-and-spend Democrats and got second place. Money will be a problem for Simon in New Hampshire and beyond. Dukakis will win New Hampshire. Third or worse in New Hampshire will not be enough for Simon to go on through Super Tuesday. The March 15 primary in Illinois, his home state, will be more of a last hurrah than a "rebirth."

Dukakis : He goes home to New England for as close to a sure win as they have in this year's process. Third in Iowa ain't bad, but it's not great either for someone who had to settle for the bronze when he was going for the gold. No matter what he says now, Dukakis was trying for a quick one-two knockout of the field with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. However, with only 9 points covering the first three Iowa finishers, he still looks OK for a win in New Hampshire and his third-place Iowa finish will help him defend against raised "neighbor" expectations. Still, he has no real message yet, certainly none with feeling.

Jackson : He would have been alive even if he had run worse than fourth. He doesn't have to play by conventional pol rules--yet he did quite well, increasing his yield fivefold over his 1984 showing. Jackson got about 10% of the white vote. Give him 10% of the white vote in the South on Super Tuesday on top of the region's large black vote, and Jackson will need 18-wheelers to haul his convention delegates to Atlanta. He is in this one to stay, by anyone's rules.

Gore : He made a tactical decision to duck Iowa and play for keeps on Super Tuesday, a wise move then and maybe even now. However, Gephardt's first-place finish was the worst possible scenario for Gore. A Simon or Dukakis win would have eliminated Gephardt and removed the only candidate endorsed by more important Southern politicians than Gore. Although Gephardt is not from Dixie, he can sell there if he runs well in New Hampshire and can endanger Gore's base. Yet, all in all, Gore was wise to bypass Iowa; running fifth or sixth would have been far worse than ducking.

Dizzyingly, the chase goes on, not just to New Hampshire or Super Tuesday, but to Atlanta in July. With five guys alive today, and four probably hanging in there, it will be worth watching.

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