PHILADELPHIA — The Democrats, shredded for the fifth time in six presidential elections, are soul-searching again and the regrouping for 1992 has suddenly come down to this: How to close the gap between Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and the Rev. Jesse Jackson?
Nunn has risen dramatically in the party pantheon by leading the Senate's rejection of John Tower for defense secretary. He is a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of Southerners and others who are trying to move the Democrats toward a pragmatic agenda that does not abandon its historic commitment to civil rights.
And Nunn's Senate record and Southern base give him credibility with the moderate middle class, the group the Democrats must win over if they are to regain the White House.
Whether he runs for President or simply helps shape the party's agenda, Nunn is now a force to contend with. You could see signs of it everywhere when he and other members of the Democratic Leadership Council met two weeks ago in Philadelphia.
Just in from winning his duel with President Bush over the Tower nomination, Nunn got a standing ovation when he rose to convene the conference. Lobbyists who finance DLC gatherings fawned over him, pulling his chair back before he sat down, pushing and shoving for the chance to bring him a glass of water.
The DLC members who have already run for President--and no doubt will again--Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, also treated Nunn deferentially.
Jackson, of course, has been a force to reckon with for some time. He is the unofficial head of the party's most loyal constituency; when he runs in 1992 he will have more national campaign experience than any of his rivals.
He is also the party's most exciting messenger and, after the Michael S. Dukakis debacle last year, Jackson is understandably impatient with Democrats who urge him to step aside so that a less controversial (and non-black) candidate can win the big prize.
But as Jackson took advantage of the DLC invitation to participate at Philadelphia, it was clear that he and council chairman Nunn are far apart--on what the party agenda ought to be and on what voters it should target in 1992.
Maryland Prof. William Galston rolled out some polling and other data for the members and told them that the Democratic Party has lost "virtually all credibility" with the middle class and "must regain competitiveness among the kinds of voters it has lost in the past."
Those voters, Galston said, are of moderate income, probably property owners. Some are Southern Protestants, others are northern and Midwestern Roman Catholics. All are concerned about personal security, economic progress and middle-class values.
Nunn couldn't agree more. "We need to articulate new themes and ideas that mainstream Americans can both understand and support," he said in the keynote address. "We are losing the working- and middle-class voters who used to be the mainstays of the party's governing coalition."
Jackson, who pointedly avoided mentioning the Galston paper, acknowledged that the party needs middle-class voters but he sees party salvation in another group: the disadvantaged, many of them minorities, some of them union members who are victims of corporate merger wars. "Politics is not just who leads us but also who needs us," he lectured.
Then, turning to Nunn, Jackson said sharply, "And Sen. Nunn, there are 97,000 unregistered African-Americans with 90% Democratic propensity in Atlanta alone. They could provide a cushion for Sam Nunn or some other Democrat."
Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb, who sat beside Jackson, at one point told the group, "If we had more messengers with the extraordinary ability to deliver a message of Jesse Jackson, there is no question we would carry the day."
Jackson was beaming until Robb added, "Now, if we could just help Jesse get that message straight . . . ."
He was referring to Jackson's interest in expanding the party's low-income base and to Jackson's desire for greatly reduced defense spending in favor of spending much more on social programs--not exactly the agenda the DLC believes will attract middle-class whites.
Later, Robb told reporters that Jackson could make the Democrats' job difficult by creating "a perception that we are bringing together all who have a greater need and pitting them in some way against those who are currently successful."
Jackson responded testily, "We have to determine which side of history we are on. If we are all things to all people, we become rather ill-defined, indecisive--kind of like warm spit."
Interestingly, Nunn, Robb and Jackson are all Southerners by birth--and that may be crucial to the Democrats' prospects.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who risked his life in the civil-rights movement 30 years ago, said at a DLC reception that if the party is to pull itself together and start winning presidential elections, "the Southerners are going to have to solve it."