The campaign managers for Democratic presidential candidates Michael S. Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson won no secret-agent awards for their bungled first attempt to hold a private meeting.
The two political rivals were quietly conferring over breakfast last month in the corner of an ersatz-French bistro in Washington's sprawling Omni Shoreham Hotel when a reporter found them and asked: "Why are you meeting?"
"We were both hungry," Dukakis' campaign manager, Susan Estrich, replied tersely.
"The most serious thing we had to decide was whether to order from the menu or the buffet," Jackson's campaign manager, Gerald F. Austin, insisted later.
Face Serious Challenges
In reality, the campaign managers for the two surviving Democratic candidates faced more serious challenges than choosing croissants--and still do.
Although Dukakis is poised to win the nomination without Jackson's delegates, party leaders know that the Massachusetts governor cannot win the November election without Jackson's voters. And the two competing candidates, the Democrats' oddest couple, have yet to forge a working political alliance to ensure that support.
By all accounts, the candidates' political dilemmas overshadow their personal differences. Aides say Dukakis has to reach out to Jackson and his supporters without alienating anxious white ethnic and Jewish voters. Jackson, on the other hand, has to push his liberal political agenda and placate his more fervent followers without jeopardizing his new-found respect and influence as a mainstream political leader.
"Jackson is not going to want to be blamed for inflicting any damage on Democratic chances in November," said Dr. Milton Morris, research director at the Joint Center for Political Studies, a Washington group that focuses on black politics. "He's an insider now."
Opens Key Dialogue
With stakes that high, aides to both candidates say the first official campaign-to-campaign meeting last month marked a watershed of sorts. It opened a critical line of communication between the rival camps. "We talk once or twice a week, not just to touch base but for rumor control," Austin said last week. "It prevents misunderstanding," Estrich agreed.
The back-channel chat is helping set the stage for a powwow between the chiefs. Dukakis said last week that he hopes to have "more than one private meeting" with Jackson before the final primaries in California and New Jersey on June 7. The candidates have talked by phone after each contest since mid-March and chat informally when their paths cross, but they have not formally sat down.
In an interview, Jackson described his relations with Dukakis as "courteous, respectful, professional. . . . I respect him very much. Like soldiers in a foxhole, relationships improve according to your objective circumstances . . . strange bedfellows in foxholes determined to live together as brothers and not die together as fools."
"I am not sure they had as close a relationship as he (Jackson) had with some of the others," said Frank Watkins, Jackson's political director. "Obviously, there are certain people you hit it off with more than others.
"But this is not tiddlywinks," Watkins added. "They are running for the highest office in the Free World. It is clearly a competitive situation."
A Fitting Caveat
Watkins' caveat is fitting given Jackson's own recent attacks. He has criticized Dukakis for not preparing a federal budget, for being as "bland" as Vice President George Bush and at one point recently even accused his fellow Democrat of being to the right of President Reagan on Mozambique. Jackson also aired his first negative TV commercial in Ohio, saying Dukakis wanted only to "manage" Reaganomics.
Moreover, Jackson's representative at a Democratic platform committee hearing last week openly challenged party leaders, telling them that the platform should contain "specific pledges" to raise taxes on the wealthy, cut the military budget and increase spending for social programs. Party Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. has advocated a short statement of principles, an approach Dukakis supports.
The Jackson aide at the session, House of Representatives Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy of the District of Columbia, said in a telephone interview afterward that he was "recommending" Jackson's positions, not making intractable demands. But he added: "It could be a battle. We're serving notice that we're prepared to fight it."
Dukakis' aides and Democratic National Committee officials calmly say the bickering is within bounds. They see no threat yet that Jackson intends to saddle the Democratic nominee or the party with difficult ideological or political demands.
"All the signs are good," said Leslie Dach, a Dukakis spokesman. "This is just politics."