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NEWS ANALYSIS : Focus on Foes' Inexperience Aids Democrats

October 31, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

HOUSTON — Only a few weeks ago, Republican George W. Bush appeared poised to take command of the Texas governor's race with a blistering attack against incumbent Ann Richards' record on crime, welfare, education and state spending.

But now, it is Bush, a 48-year-old businessman who has never held public office, who finds himself dodging flak. In biting TV ads and a grueling schedule of appearances, Richards appears to have regained the initiative with a lacerating counterattack that portrays the former President's son as unqualified, unethical and a failure in business who has floated through life on his father's name.

"What you have here is a Johnny-come-lately who has spent his whole life eating off a silver platter, and we are not going to let him lead our state," said Richards, an extravagantly silver-haired 61, at an enthusiastic rally here Saturday morning.

In the closely watched Massachusetts Senate race, there's been a similar reversal of roles. After months on the defensive, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has used a volley of harsh negative advertisements to reopen a gaping lead over Mitt Romney, another first-time candidate whose youth and slim good looks seem to almost mock Kennedy's mottled and bloated visage.

Likewise in Florida, 64-year-old Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles--who two weeks ago looked like a retirement waiting to happen--has fought back to at least a dead heat with an uncharacteristically personal counterattack against Jeb Bush, more than two decades Chiles' junior and another son of the former President.

This pivot between hunter and prey is apparent in more than half a dozen Senate and gubernatorial races where a Democratic incumbent faces a serious challenge.

Struggling against opponents who are either much younger, or are new to politics, veteran Democrats from Richards, Chiles and Kennedy to Govs. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Zell Miller of Georgia and Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Jim Sasser of Tennessee have fought their way off the mat with remarkably similar strategies.

Partly they are emphasizing their experience and accomplishments; but mostly they are ferociously attempting to redefine their opponents as unknown and untested quantities with slippery ethics and hidden agendas.

In effect, these Democrats are trying to convert the principal asset of their opponents--their freshness--into a source of suspicion. "We're taking this outsider argument and turning it around," said George Shipley, a consultant to Richards.

That assessment remains premature and probably overly optimistic: Despite President Clinton's recent gains in the polls, the anti-Democratic currents coursing through parts of the nation may still sweep away several Democrats employing these tactics.

But in the past two weeks, Kennedy has regained a substantial lead, and Feinstein, Cuomo and Miller have achieved more narrow advantages. Richards, Chiles, Sasser and Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, who's in a similar position, however, are running no better than even; one public poll released Sunday shows Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania now trailing his much younger opponent, Rep. Rick Santorum, although Democrats insist that Wofford is still leading.

Even so, virtually across the board, the Democratic counterattacks appear to at least have slowed the momentum of their GOP challengers and changed the dynamic of these races from a referendum on the incumbent into a choice between two inevitably flawed politicians.

"We are moving from 'I hate this incumbent' to 'Who is this other guy?' " said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

Of the six Republican challengers to Democratic governors still privately rated as the strongest prospects by GOP strategists, all but former Alabama Gov. Fob James Jr. are fresh faces.

Four come directly from the business world: Jeb Bush, a Florida real estate developer; George W. Bush, the managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team; Guy Millner, a temporary-services company owner who is challenging Zell Miller in Georgia, and Gary E. Johnson, a construction contractor and triathlete who is leading veteran Democratic Gov. Bruce King in New Mexico. A fifth, George Pataki, was a virtually unknown New York state legislator when the campaign began.

All except Millner are in their 40s and at least 13 years younger than their opponents; none except Pataki has ever held public office.

The same pattern holds true in the Senate. Of the six Democratic senators in the toughest races this year, all but New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman are battling candidates who contrast sharply in age and/or political experience.

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