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Can a Non-Politician Wade Into Still Waters of Democratic Presidential Race? : Democrats: With so many politicians yet to declare, the time might be right for a citizen-candidate to represent the party in 1992.

January 13, 1991|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times

WASHINGTON — Television commentator Hodding Carter III is rushing in where Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) fears to tread.

New Hampshire.

Next month, Carter, an articulate and unapologetic liberal, will give the keynote speech at the New Hampshire Democrats' 100 Club dinner--the state party's premiere forum for potential presidential candidates.

Originally, Nunn was invited to speak. But he turned the offer down, worried that addressing a group of New Hampshire Democrats just 12 months before the state's first-in-the-nation primary might leave the impression he wants to be President--which he may, but not yet enough to publicly admit it. Sen. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, another Democrat who insists he's not running--though more peripatetically--also took a pass.

At a time when Democrats are ducking forums that might signal their interest in the presidency as if they were invitations to lunch with savings-and-loan magnate Charles H. Keating Jr., Carter's acceptance seems downright exhibitionist. Enough to generate a ripple of speculation that he'd like to dip his toe in the still waters of the Democratic presidential race.

Carter, a former newspaper editor who ably served as the State Department spokesman during the Jimmy Carter Administration, denies any ambition to be the next Carter in the Oval Office. "Nobody says there is any ground swell for me as a candidate," Carter says.

But he allows that he wants to "add to the discussion" in the Democratic Party and says if more invitations follow his New Hampshire speech, he'll keep talking. "If somebody wants to listen to me talk . . . I'm there," he says. "That's for sure--nothing coy, nothing cute."

In fact, by accepting this invitation, Carter is positioning himself for comparison with the party's other potential standard-bearers--something well understood by longtime Democratic activist J. Joseph Grandmaison, the man who invited Carter to New Hampshire.

"There will be a natural tendency . . . to weigh his thoughts with what would normally be expected out of a presidential candidacy," says Grandmaison, a former state party chairman, who "absolutely" hopes the speech will encourage Democrats to consider Carter as a candidate.

Bright as he is, it's not easy to imagine Carter--who lacks both wide name recognition and easy access to campaign money--launching a full-scale campaign. But raising his name raises a larger question: Could a non-politician, citizen-candidate seek the presidency in 1992?

It has happened before. Utility executive Wendell L. Willkie--dubbed, by Democrats, the simple, barefoot populist from Wall Street--ran well as the GOP candidate against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. Twelve years later, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency in his first bid for public office.

Cut to 1988. Television journalist Bill Moyers, who served in the White House under Lyndon B. Johnson, seriously considered joining the Democratic chase to succeed Ronald Reagan. Boston University President John R. Silber pondered the race, too, but ultimately decided to invest his vitriol in a bid for the Massachusetts governorship. Democratic political consultant Greg Schneiders organized a movement to draft Lee A. Iacocca, but the Chrysler Corp. chairman squashed it like a cat on the freeway. And, of course, two preachers with a longstanding bent for politics actually entered the race: Democrat Jesse Jackson and Republican Marion G. (Pat) Robertson.

As activists in both parties plot the 1992 contests, those names have all fleetingly surfaced again--along with Carter. Some Democrats are intrigued with Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who briskly argues for liberal social goals in boardroom language of economic necessity and is in the midst of a media blitz against war in the Persian Gulf. Supporters have asked Ralph Nader to consider running as a Democrat.

Each of these men bring unique strengths to a potential race, but they would share some formidable common obstacles, notes pollster Patrick H. Caddell, who has plotted some of the Democratic Party's most successful insurgent campaigns. For a "Mr. Smith" candidate, Caddell says, the biggest hurdle would be passing the voters' "credibility threshold"--particularly on foreign affairs and control of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

In the nuclear age, voters are understandably nervous about putting an amateur's finger on the button. As Caddell observes, Willkie was drafted before the Manhattan Project added to the President's brief the capacity to destroy the world and Eisenhower, as the architect of victory over Nazi Germany, probably had more credibility as commander-in-chief than any politician.

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