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Are These Guys Really From Mars?

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

August 18, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

SAN DIEGO — I can now report that life exists on Mars. I know because I landed here last week. The planet I left two weeks ago, Earth, has, in the country of the United States, a Republican Party of dark and dangerous people. They are Reedites, Schlafleyites and Buchananites--very right wing and intolerant.

But the Republican Party here on Mars is full of moderate, decent, optimistic people. They are Molinari-ites, McCainites; even the Gingrichites, known for their fierceness and nastiness, seem mellow. And they also have here a good and grand Wizard of Mars, a wizard with a big smile, a great ability to communicate and an abundance of optimism. They call this wizard Kemp.

OK, so the Mars story may seem a bit of a reach, but I can say this: Being here in San Diego, I feel like Rip Van Winkle waking up at a Democratic convention. In San Diego last week, you heard about AIDS victims, disabled Americans, Habitat for Human- ity, beach volleyball and so on. I haven't heard so much sympathy for so many causes since the last Democratic National Convention.

The right-wingers who so dominated the news the week before the convention were impossible to find. In fairness to their families, we should put photos of Ralph Reed, Phyllis Schlafley and Patrick J. Buchanan on milk cartons. Perhaps they are on a slow boat to China with first-class tickets, compliments of Haley Barbour and the level-headed crowd running this convention.

The biggest news of the week, of course, was Jack F. Kemp. It's clear to me now that, for Republicans at this convention, Kemp represents the resurrection of Reaganism. Until Nancy Reagan's speech, I never understood how deep the affection for Reagan runs in this party. Clearly, he is to them what John F. Kennedy was to my party--and Kemp has rekindled that feeling.

The other thing that's apparent is that the Kemp we were introduced to in the '80s as very conservative--in those times, the definition of a right-winger--is now clearly positioned as a moderate and hence a problem for the Democrats.

I was shocked to see the White House attack Kemp right out of the box as a right-winger. Not only was it bad form so close to his selection but, with voters, it simply doesn't ring true. When voters look at the Buchanans and Reeds of the world, that's when they see right-wingers. When they look at Kemp, they see a happy face and a tolerant human being.

So my advice to the Democrats is to lay off Kemp for the time being. I am willing to predict that Kemp will make one or two big mistakes before this campaign is over. I have known and liked Kemp for several years, and the very things you like about him are the things that get disciplined politicians in trouble: He speaks his mind and sometimes doesn't think through the consequences of what he says. He also doesn't take criticism well and, despite his genial demeanor, he has a big-time temper. Under the pressure of the next 70 days, I suspect that temper will emerge.

Despite the good feeling here about Kemp and the sense that he has helped moderate the image of the Republican Party, what he cannot do is transplant his happy face onto Bob Dole. What you saw of Dole on Thursday night was the best you will see. It was the result of endless practice, the kind of practice the rest of this campaign will not permit him. To be certain, Dole is a decent and smart man--but no matter how hard the Republicans may hope, and what he attests, he simply is not an optimistic, happy man. The man with those assets sits in the co-pilot's seat. History tells us that few presidential elections are won or lost by the co-pilot--and even this wizard is unlikely to change that.

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