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Democratic Race: Will Clinton Crash and Burn?

DECODING THE CAMPAIGN. Another in a series of articles critiquing the '92 presidential strategies

February 09, 1992|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — As the smoke clears from the explosion of the blonde bombshell aimed at Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democrats face a dilemma. Their leading candidate for the party's nomination is still the leading candidate. Yet Democrats watch him lead the pack around the track with all the fascination of a crowd at a high-speed auto race--knowing the crazy kid will either win or wreck. So they sit, hope and cheer, uncertain of the ending.

As the New Hampshire primary election nears, the Democrats have three options. They can nominate Clinton, holding their breath that the ticking they hear is not the time bomb of a believable charge involving sex or something else. They can nominate one of the other four major candidates in the race, all behind Clinton so far. Or they can nominate someone not in the race, a difficult option at best.

The remarkable thing about nominating Clinton is that it is still the most likely option. Halfway between the charges of extended extramarital sex and the New Hampshire primary, the Arkansas governor has maintained his lead in the polls there. His accuser has been discredited, the press has been widely condemned for echoing the charges and, even at the height of the controversy, neither his fund raising nor his endorsements by Democratic leaders seemed affected. Few presidential candidates could have survived the extraordinary and often unfair press Clinton received. The fact that he has so far says a lot about him and pages about his new Democratic message.

Yet, for all the obvious attractions of the Clinton message--the rediscovery of the middle class, the divorce from failed liberal postures and the emphasis on youth and change--suspicion lingers.

Democrats confront the prospect of a nominee who can't take a hard hit in the general election. Facing a Republican Party that has proven shameless in digging up both real and imagined dirt--remember the charges from Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.) about Michael S. Dukakis' supposed visits to a psychiatrist?--there is every reason to expect the worst in the fall.

The hope here is that the press--and everyone else--will be watching the GOP closely. I suspect that, before the most recent Bimbonic Plague has run its course, Republican fingerprints will be found all over the Gennifer Flowers tapes and story. If that is true, the monitoring of George Bush and his surrogates should be tight enough not to let them get away with the 1990s version of the 1970s Dirty Tricks that first brought their current crop of party leaders to power.

If the Clinton candidacy does implode before he wins more than 50% of the delegates, then the second option available to Democrats is to follow the advice in the Chinese menu: Choose one from Column B. Here the available selection, including two senators, a former senator and a former governor, is a respectable tier of candidates. And yet, as of now, all share a common flaw, especially the second-ranking candidacy of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska: They had their opportunity to gain on a wounded front-runner, and they didn't.

Opportunities don't knock often in this business of presidential politics. When they do, you've got to make a move. The other candidates complained they couldn't get any attention from the media to make a move. That dog don't hunt. If Kerrey or Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa had their campaigns and, particularly in Kerrey's case, a message together, they would have moved. Don't believe the story that New Hampshire voters didn't look around during Clinton's troubles. They did--and they didn't buy.

There will be more opportunities before New Hampshire votes on Feb. 18, but not many. If one of the other candidates is ready, he'll have his shot. Kerrey is beginning to show some life, especially on the health-care issue. Old-time Democrats still like Harkin's old-time religion, and Paul E. Tsongas continues to stay in the hunt as tenaciously as a pit bull on a postman's leg. One of these guys could upset Clinton in New Hampshire. If so, all the talk about weak campaigns will stop and a new front-runner will emerge. At least for a few weeks.

Which brings us to the late-entry scenario. Is it possible? Sure. Probable? No. Keep this in mind: No one will get in until New Hampshire speaks. By then, all but 13 state ballots will be closed. The first time a new name could get on a ballot would be mid-April. By then, someone will have won more primaries than the others and will have momentum.

But what, say the pundits, if Clinton is wounded and Kerrey, Harkin and the rest split up the next couple of rounds? The infamous "mired in the mud" scenario. Highly unlikely, as momentum tends to move toward one person. But I'll buy in for the sake of argument.

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