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WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Public Is Willing to Make Room for Independent Presidential Candidate

August 28, 1995|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

In a national survey released last week, a head-turning 26% of Americans said they would support an unnamed independent presidential candidate in a hypothetical 1996 race with President Clinton and the eventual Republican nominee.

That's a substantial potential base on which to build an insurgency. The 26% showing put an independent candidate within striking distance of Clinton (at 32%) and the GOP contender (at 35%) in the survey released by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press.

Unfortunately for those dreaming of alternatives to the two-party system, the election laws still require a name on the ballot. There's the rub. As a general proposition, Americans appear open to--even intrigued by--the possibility of reaching beyond the two-party system for national leadership. But finding a flesh-and-blood candidate who can convert that inclination into actual votes is another question.

The cast of candidates auditioning for that post--or being offered by admirers--seems to be growing almost weekly. In fact, with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley's recent announcement that he too is considering a White House bid outside the two parties, the list of potential independent presidential candidates is starting to rival the roster of Republican contenders in length. "The real question," said Democratic political consultant Anita Dunn, "is when are they going to do a straw poll for the independents?"

Probably no time soon. So let's take our own tour of this third track.

Arrayed from left to right, the field of potential 1996 independent candidates begins with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Just because Jackson seems to have threatened an independent candidacy every time Clinton has disagreed with him doesn't mean he won't actually pull the trigger someday. Jackson is a gripping speaker and an energetic campaigner, but his high negatives and ideological edge sharply limit his audience. He couldn't win the White House, but in a three-way race with Clinton and a GOP nominee, his appeal to liberals and African Americans would make it virtually impossible for Clinton to survive.

"Run, Jesse, run," says Mike Murphy, the chief strategist for GOP presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander.

Well to Jackson's right, but still to the left of center, comes Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a former Republican senator who was elected governor of Connecticut as an independent in 1990. Weicker is the kind of Republican they don't make much anymore: fiscally conservative and socially liberal. If he ran in 1996, he would focus his fire mostly on the influence of religious conservatives in the GOP, but he could take much of his vote from upscale, college-educated suburbanites that Clinton would also covet against a conservative Republican nominee. In any case, without national name identification or a strong national fund-raising base, Weicker probably can't hope to function as much more than a gadfly--though one that could still tip the balance of a close race.

Slightly to Weicker's right would be Bradley, who offers a similar combination of fiscal discipline and social liberalism. Bradley adds to the equation an emphasis on free trade and political reform--the principal note he's struck since announcing his decision to retire from the Senate in 1996 and consider an independent race.

That mix of positions is common for cerebral centrists with an eye on suburban voters (think of Paul E. Tsongas among Democrats or Republican John Anderson, who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1980). Traditionally, such candidates have had much more trouble attracting economically and culturally populist voters who do not have college degrees--who, polls suggest, may be the most fertile ground for a third-track insurgency.

Reaching beyond a suburban base would be the greatest challenge for Bradley if he steps in. But his focus on improving middle-class living standards gives him at least a calling card with less-affluent voters. Intriguingly, his new book, due out in January, argues that one way to help boost the fortunes of working-class Americans is to revitalize the labor movement, sources say.

No one knows exactly where Colin L. Powell, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, fits on the ideological spectrum, but most believe that he tilts as modestly to the right of center as Bradley does to the left. Powell, who says he'll focus on whether to enter the race after promoting his autobiography this fall, could turn out to be like a Henry Jackson Democrat, updated to reflect the growing concern about the federal budget deficit: strong on national defense but committed to a government that, within fiscal limitations, works to expand economic opportunity.

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