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POLITICS 88 : W. Virginia: Invoking the Spirit of J.F.K.

May 10, 1988|DOUGLAS JEHL | Times Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — So enduring is the legacy of John F. Kennedy's victory in the 1960 Democratic presidential primary here that the campaigns of both Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have done their best 28 years later to strike the Kennedy chord.

Not only did Dukakis remind voters here that he, like Kennedy, is a "son of Massachusetts" seeking to upset "a sitting vice president," but his campaign, choosing the accent aides thought might best inspire West Virginia, sent a string of Massachusetts surrogates to reminisce about Kennedy and vouch for Dukakis at rallies throughout the state.

Meanwhile, the Jackson campaign, looking for victory in a state that is only 4% black, reminded voters that Kennedy, too, had appealed to the disenchanted and triumphed over demographics in West Virginia, proving with his primary defeat of Hubert H. Humphrey that an urban Catholic could win in an overwhelmingly rural Protestant environment.

Symbolic Touchstone

In a state where photographs of Kennedy remain a fixture on political walls and where voters "tend to hearken back to 1960," as the state Democratic chairman said, the dredged-up trappings of the historic contest provided a symbolic touchstone for today's presidential primary.

But their importance, by all accounts, will end there. The likelihood of a Dukakis victory here appears to be viewed with widespread acquiescence, seen as yet another step toward an inevitable Dukakis nomination.

Dukakis also is heavily favored in a primary today in Nebraska, where 25 delegates will be chosen.

Nebraska Sen. David Karnes, like West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., faces a tough Republican primary fight today. Karnes, a political unknown when he was appointed last year to complete the term of the late Democratic Sen. Edward Zorinsky, is being aggressively challenged by four-term Rep. Hal Daub.

Whoever wins the GOP primary is expected to face former Gov. Bob Kerrey, who is expected to easily win the Democratic nomination.

Campaign for Governor

In West Virginia, a state renowned for its preoccupation with politics, voters have focused on the hotly contested gubernatorial campaign, which is regarded as far more crucial to the future of this economically depressed state.

Both the Democratic and the Republican contests for the governorship pit wealthy businessmen against established politicians, setting up bitter battles between what the challengers describe as a choice between "old politics and new."

In another West Virginia contest, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, 71, is heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination for his sixth term. Byrd says he will give up the majority leader's job to become Senate Appropriations Committee chairman if he is re-elected and Democrats retain control of the Senate.

In the gubernatorial primaries, the nastier of the two races is the Democratic contest, in which polls showed Gaston Caperton, a brash insurance company owner, running neck and neck against Clyde See, a former House of Delegates Speaker who was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1984.

Breaking a West Virginia record set by Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, Caperton spent more than $1.8 million on his campaign, most of it his own, prompting charges from See that he was trying to buy the election. An angry exchange of television commercials followed, deteriorating to a level of vitriol typified by a Caperton ad that depicted See as Pinocchio, his nose growing longer with each "lie" he told.

The Republican race, between entrepreneur John Raese and Gov. Moore, seeking his fourth term in the Statehouse, has been less heated but more volatile, with polls showing a 40-point reversal in the space of two weeks, leaving Moore with a 13-point lead but both sides mistrustful of the polls.

Alleged Payoff

On Sunday night, Moore, whose 1984 campaign was investigated by federal prosecutors, was dealt another blow by allegations broadcast on NBC-TV that he in 1972 attempted to give a Democratic political boss $12,000 in a vote-buying scheme.

The alleged payoff involved Mingo County, a poor backwater where a voter revolt and a series of grand jury indictments swept numerous incumbents out of office under a cloud of corruption. Fifty political novices are among the 69 candidates there who filed for 12 offices, which include the legislature, county commission and sheriff.

But the gubernatorial contests have most grabbed the attention of voters looking for answers to what political observers interviewed repeatedly described as "all of West Virginia's problems."

Coal production here reached an all-time high, but only through new technology that has reduced the industry's work force from 63,000 to 24,000 in the last five years. The jobless rate of 13% remains the highest in the nation, and per capita income is the second lowest, causing nearly 100,000 West Virginians a year to flee in search of jobs.

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