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NEWS ANALYSIS : Lack of Democratic Hopefuls Points Up Party Weaknesses : Presidency: Void in challengers is not due to enthusiasm for Clinton's leadership but to absence of energy to mount an internal struggle.

March 27, 1995|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — For all the misadventures of his first two years in office, President Clinton seems likely to gain renomination with less opposition than any Democratic chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Yet this news is not nearly as reassuring as it might seem for the President and his party. It is not widespread enthusiasm for his leadership that is inoculating Clinton against a serious challenge. Rather his immunity mainly reflects weaknesses in his party--the absence of the strong convictions, energy and nerve that have sparked insurgencies throughout the turbulent history of modern Democrats.

"There was a great defeat in November, and we still have not regrouped," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who is often mentioned as a 1996 challenger to Clinton. "I just don't have any interest" in seeking the nomination.

"There is not at present any ideological focus to the Democratic Party," said one disillusioned liberal activist who is a veteran of the 1968 rebellion against Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1980 insurgency against Jimmy Carter. "What would the rationale for a candidacy against Clinton be?" asked the activist, who is close enough to the White House that he requested anonymity. "Would you claim: 'I can reinvent government better?' "

At first glance, Clinton would seem to be an inevitable target for another of the impassioned challenges that have dogged his modern Democratic predecessors. After gaining office with only 43% of the vote, enduring repeated charges of impropriety and watching health care reform--the centerpiece of his domestic program--be torpedoed, the President had to take much of the blame for one of the worst electoral defeats in the history of his party.

And while Clinton's personal problems have simmered down for the time being, no fewer than four present or former members of his Cabinet have come under federal scrutiny as a result of various allegations of misconduct.

While recent surveys of Democratic voters show that Clinton's standing has improved since the November election, pollsters detect enough softness in his support to deem him vulnerable to a challenge.

Clinton received slightly less than 50% support in a recent Time magazine/CNN survey of Democratic voters who were asked their preference for the 1996 nomination. But Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, pointed out that then-President George Bush, by contrast, received nearly 80% support from his party's voters in a 1992 matchup against commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who was already running hard in his challenge for the GOP nomination.

Kohut also cited a Times Mirror poll taken last month that showed Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas garnering the support of 88% of GOP voters while Clinton was backed by only 79% of Democrats.

"Rank-and-file Democrats are more restless about Clinton than candidates are willing to take him on," Kohut concluded.

Of course, much can change in the 17 months remaining before the roll is called at the Democratic convention in Chicago, particularly given the allegations concerning the Clinton family's real estate venture in the Ozarks before he entered the White House.

"No one knows what Whitewater will bring the day after tomorrow," said veteran Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk, a longtime Clinton critic.

According to Press Secretary Mike McCurry, the White House is still operating on the assumption that Clinton will face a challenge--a prudent step given the party's turbulent history. Many Clinton advisers, for example, fear that the Rev. Jesse Jackson could run against Clinton--although more likely as a third-party candidate in the general election than as a Democrat in the primaries.

Still, McCurry sees little sign of a serious opposition candidacy developing now and points out: "The deeper you get into 1995, the less likely it is that anyone can mount a significant challenge. Where do you get the money?"

Besides money, other practical reasons exist to make potential challengers hesitate. Even a weakened President can be a formidable adversary, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) learned to his regret when Carter turned back Kennedy's bid to oust him in 1980. Moreover, any intraparty rival would be accused of fomenting disunity. "If by challenging Clinton someone merely succeeds in weakening him further, they would hurt the party's chances of regaining control of the House and Senate," contended Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

But such practical considerations have not prevented past insurgencies, which were sometimes inspired more by commitment to a cause than by hopes of actually gaining the nomination.

In addition to Kennedy's challenge of Carter, in 1948 President Harry S. Truman faced opposition from both the left and the Southern right. One side thought that he had done too little to advance New Deal policies; the other was angered by his support for civil rights.

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