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Would-Be Candidates Wait--in Case Clinton Falters : Politics: Three potential Democratic challengers discreetly distance themselves from the President.

February 03, 1995|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri says that he isn't running against President Clinton for the 1996 Democratic presidential nomination--but he isn't promising not to, either.

Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) says that Democrats still have to decide whether to stick with Clinton or look for another candidate. And when Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) is asked whether Clinton can win reelection, he shrugs and answers: "I don't know."

None of these big-name Democrats is actually running against Clinton, or visibly planning to run. But all three have let it be known, one way or another, that they are not sure the President is the right person to lead their party in 1996. And in the view of other Democrats, all three appear to be discreetly putting themselves in a position to run--just in case Clinton falters.

"Bill Clinton is not going to have a serious challenge if he decides to run again," said a Democratic strategist who asked not to be identified because of his ties to several potential candidates. "But if Clinton decides not to run for some reason, sure, there's a field out there."

Clinton, of course, has said that he plans to run and win. And the President's aides have buoyantly been pointing to recent polls which show that public approval of his performance is back at a respectable level (49% in a Los Angeles Times Poll released this week).

Still, the open skepticism of other leading Democrats about Clinton's ability to lead their party out of its post-November wilderness is creating a chronic headache for the White House.

In particular, "Gephardt's getting on their nerves," a former Clinton aide said. The House minority leader has taken a series of independent initiatives in recent weeks--proposing his own version of a middle-class tax cut, suggesting a Democratic version of a "flat tax" on incomes and announcing that he plans to take his orders "from America's houses, not the White House." All implicitly challenge Clinton's leadership as Democrats do battle with Congress' new Republican majority.

White House aides said that they are not worried about the rumblings in the party ranks. "Democrats are united," said Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, who once worked for Gephardt. "That doesn't mean that Democrats are going to agree on everything all the time."

Still, the President's political aides are hastily building a campaign organization and planning several presidential trips to New Hampshire, a full year before that state's primary election.

"At this point, I don't see any sign of a real challenge," said New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Keefe, a Clinton loyalist. "But I realize that there is some time left before those decisions have to be made.

"Obviously the President has had a rocky road and his approval rating has been low," Keefe added. "But there's still strong support for his agenda and his accomplishments."

During a visit to Boston on Tuesday, Clinton made a point of giving a telephone interview to a Nashua, N.H., radio station. "I expect to see you several times this year," he promised New Hampshire voters.

And in his speech to Democratic donors in Boston, the President made a deliberately strong pitch for some traditional liberal causes--in an apparent bid to shore up support among party loyalists.

"I'm all for (spending cuts)," he said. "But let's not cut Head Start for children, or the school-to-work program for the non-college-bound kids. Let's not cut the nutrition programs and the food programs that keep poor people alive. . . . Let's not pay for tax cuts by cutting Medicare."

"Usually, if there's a challenge to a sitting President, it has an ideological basis," observed Keefe. "But this President has done a good job of putting himself in the center of the party. There's support for him across ideological lines."

Instead, Clinton's Democratic doubters appear to be waiting to see whether policy reverses, the Whitewater investigation or some unforeseen circumstance will seriously weaken the President.

Bradley, a respected moderate who has long been considered a potential presidential candidate, startled Democrats with his acid comments on a New York radio program earlier this week.

"I think that people are going to look at the President in the next six to nine months and they're going to make an assessment as to whether they believe he can do the job," Bradley told radio host Don Imus.

Asked whether he would consider running against Clinton, Bradley was noncommittal. "I think that anybody could step up to the plate if the circumstances were right," he said.

Gephardt has been more judicious, but equally worrisome to the White House. In a speech this week, the St. Louis congressman indirectly criticized Clinton's economic policy as insufficient to deal with the problems faced by the nation's workers.

"Some say that we are simply passing through a transition period, that new skills and training and education alone will help us weather the storm," he said, citing a recurring theme of the President's speeches.

Democrats, he said, should stand for "a new economic nationalism" that demands higher wages and labor standards in developing countries and new laws to induce U.S. firms to pass more of their productivity gains on to their employees in the form of higher wages.

Asked whether he had thoughts of running for President, Gephardt was not quite committal. "I'm happy to be minority leader (of the House) and hoping to be the majority leader or Speaker," he said.

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