DALLAS — "Tonight was the beginning of the main event of 1988," said Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. "I think it's fair to lay it on the line."
Thus Gore explained why he saw fit to rip his Democratic presidential rivals up one side and down the other during the television debate here last week that kicked off the drive for the richest delegate prize of the campaign--the March 8 Super Tuesday primaries.
The environment was just as belligerent on the Republican side, a point driven home by a key aide to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, chief rival to Vice President George Bush for the GOP nomination.
"We have to go South and kick the living hell out of George Bush," said David Keene, Dole's senior political consultant.
As these remarks make abundantly clear, any traces of gentility are rapidly vanishing from the struggle for the White House as the Super Tuesday showdown approaches. With more than 30% of the delegates to each party's convention at stake, all the contenders are turning up the heat, aggressively building up their own claims to voter support and, often, even more aggressively putting down the pretensions of their opponents.
The underlying reason is that the March 8 stakes are enormous for every candidate. For some the outcome could mean something close to certain victory--or certain defeat.
The aspirant with the greatest potential here is probably Bush. With his superior financial and organizational resources, Bush could all but assure his nomination with a decisive victory on March 8.
At the other end of the spectrum are New York Rep. Jack Kemp, who is hanging on to his candidacy by a thread, and the contentious Gore, who has chosen to rest the future of his campaign on a strong Southern showing. A Super Tuesday flop would make their candidacies close to irrelevant should they chose to compete in future primaries.
That explains why Gore pounded away at his two chief white rivals for Southern support in last week's debate here, accusing Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of weakness in dealing with Communist intrusions in this hemisphere, and indicting Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt for political expediency.
And it explains why Kemp, given a rare opportunity to debate Bush one-on-one here last week, once again castigated the vice president for remarking in New Hampshire: "Give peace a chance."
Said Kemp: "You have yet to mention how important it is that this country stand for something beyond just peace."
Of course, not all the outbursts heard along the campaign trail are necessarily so well-calculated. Some appear to have resulted from the frayed condition of candidates after prolonged months of exhaustion and frustration. This sort of response was exemplified most dramatically on the night of Dole's defeat in New Hampshire by the Kansan's harsh admonition to Bush over national television to "stop lying about my record."
That inevitably focused press and public attention on the subject Dole's advisers have tried hardest to have people forget--Dole's celebrated nasty streak. And when reporters pressed Dole about his testiness, this naturally made him even testier. Asked about his crotchetiness, Dole reportedly retorted: "I've got a bad cold. Maybe you'll get one, one day."
But far more important than moodiness in shaping campaign rhetoric are the daunting dimensions of the Super Tuesday competition.
A few figures indicate what the candidates are up against. Setting aside the handful of Northern and Western states that will also ballot on March 8, in Dixie alone, where most candidate effort will be concentrated, the battlefield sprawls across 14 Southern and Border states, 50 media markets and 94 congressional districts, holding no fewer than 90 million Americans--40% of the nation's population.
So broad and heterogeneous is the terrain that a candidate's only hope for success is to aim at specific geographic and demographic targets. That makes it imperative for each candidate to set himself apart from his rivals by sharpening his own message and, at least as important, by lashing out at his competitors.
Time to Cash In
Now is the time when the candidates must strive to cash in on arguments they labored to develop, frequently at political cost, in the New Hampshire and Iowa campaigns.
"Our strategy is pretty clear," said Ed Reilly, pollster for Gephardt, who is viewed as one of the leaders of the Democratic pack after his victory in Iowa and his second-place finish in New Hampshire. "We basically have defined a message and a set of ideas. Now we are going to focus on places where we believe we can get the greatest result for our time and dollars."
One of the keys to Gephardt's Super Tuesday hopes is his longtime advocacy of an oil import fee, a proposal that is considered to have strong appeal in energy-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.