Democrats Real Fight Could Be Over No. 3 Spot

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

February 23, 1992|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Tuesday night I stood on a crowded press platform in the back of Razzberries Restaurant here, listening to Paul E. Tsongas' victory speech. To misquote an ancient Italian politician: I came, I saw, I listened--and I still don't get it. I have my doubts whether or not Democrats in states outside New England will either.

Let's give Tsongas his due. He won in New Hampshire on the strength of his personal convictions behind a message of economic revival, his early start, his home being five minutes from the state border and his relentless retail politics. He personally talked to just about all his voters.

Yet his complicated message of pain and long-term recovery takes time and effort to communicate. It's not what people with immediate problems want to hear. In other primaries, Tsongas won't have the time or resources to personally explain his 86-page treatise. Nor are the formats of multistate, media-dominated primaries the best places to get that message across. The difficulty of understanding his message was reflected in the educational level of his voters (46% post-graduate) while Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was getting almost the same percentage (41%) with less then high school--and beating Tsongas in virtually every other education demographic.

Let's face it, Tsongas would have finished second without the character questions being thrown at former front-runner Clinton in the last weeks of the campaign. When the draft questions surfaced, New Hampshire voters stepped back from Clinton for a second look. A Gallup poll the week before the primary showed Clinton behind Tsongas by 2-1, and falling fast. I took a long ride with a somber Clinton adviser, James Carville, who wondered aloud if they'd survive. No one in recent memory took the character hits Clinton did and survive.

But survive he did--and then some. After being rocked and rolled by tabloid charges and draft problems, he managed in the final days to get back to his message. When he did, his campaign started smoking. Four overflow rallies were put together in five days. This allowed Clinton to take his message directly to his voters and gave the campaign--and the candidate--excitement and momentum when it counted.

Two other factors helped Clinton, one unintended, one intended. Clinton's performance in last Sunday's debate was solid and message-driven. More important, his character problems never came up. This was largely an unintended result of the other candidates not attacking him. He was left alone because they thought he was bleeding badly. Problem was, these guys were reading polls four days old. By Sunday, Clinton was moving fast.

A more orchestrated tactic was the decision by Hilary Clinton to step back from the spotlight. Though she had helped her husband in his times of trouble, her presence in the last five days would have been a reminder of past problems. Her absence helped focus attention on the candidate and his message.

So Clinton leaves New Hampshire as the favorite and Tsongas leaves as the front-runner. In a normal election year this would be a two-way race, but this isn't a normal year: Third place may well be worth having. The Third Man will be decided this week in South Dakota, with neighbors Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa going head-to-head. The loser is likely to drop out and the winner will be No. 3. My bet's on Kerrey.

Why is third such a big deal? Herewith a scenario: Clinton defeats Tsongas in a series of primaries in the South and West over the next three weeks. He wins Illinois and Michigan on March 17. Tsongas is gone. But then, in Clinton's rush to the nomination, lightening strikes with more stories from his past. A severely wounded front-runner, an already-defeated, unelectable No. 2 candidate, leaves Kerrey to pick up the pieces. In fact, if Kerrey can stay alive, he could run ahead of Tsongas in some Southern states.

A brief comment on a late entry. The idea pretty much died in New Hampshire. The vaunted New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo as a write-in barely defeated Ralph Nader. If the aforementioned scenario occurs and Kerrey can't pick up the pieces, there is only one Democrat who could quickly unify the party--Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen of Texas. So New Hampshire answered a few questions and posed many more. The Democrats now have a two-man race, with one chaser. The question of who will win the nomination is not yet answered, but may well be within 30 days.

One other thought from my days in the Granite State. As I watched the Buchanan juggernaut rip through the weakened underbelly of George Bush, I thought of all those big names who had said this year the incumbent was unbeatable--and stayed out. Boys, eat your hearts out.

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