Jack Kemp, the ambitious Republican congressman from New York, was going to wait at least until next year. But weighing the buoyant mood of campaign workers who were celebrating his comfortable reelection last week, he decided to wait no longer. At a victory gathering that began in Buffalo, even before the final returns were in, Kemp told cheering supporters that he hoped that they would not mind if “we’re thinking about 1988.” With that, the right-wing politician dropped his strongest hint to date that he might run for the presidency. He was not alone in the wake of the U.S. midterm elections. Several candidates began sounding out their chances of replacing Ronald Reagan when his second term runs out in two years.
Partly because the 1988 presidential contest will be the first race in 20 years not to feature an incumbent, the jockeying for position among would-be
candidates got off to an unusually early start. Indeed, in August, Michigan Republicans held a complicated new primary vote—the first step in determining how the state’s 77 delegates to the party’s 1988 national convention will be apportioned among the candidates. That primary—in which VicePresident George Bush and television evangelist Marion (Pat) Robertson both claimed victory—came 15 months before the scheduled Iowa party caucuses that traditionally signal the start of the presidential nomination process. As last week’s congressional results poured in, they afforded an opportunity to weigh the impact on the looming presidential race.
Loyalty: So far, Bush enjoys the lead in the Republican race. A sampling of Republicans polled last week for The New York Times and CBS News gave Bush 34 per cent, 20 points more than his nearest rival, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas. Bush is believed to have the private loyal-
ty of Reagan and much of the White House staff. Still, last week’s election results suggested that Reagan’s backing might not carry as much weight as it once did. Said Republican party pollster Kevin Phillips: “This has to give George Bush concern. This election suggests that the federal tide is moving away from what Bush and Reagan represent.”
Setback: Although Dole regained his seat, he also suffered a setback. The new Democratic dominance of the Senate means that he will no longer reign as Senate majority leader. But Dole’s loss of status could carry a hidden benefit. Said Howard Penniman, a director of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research: “It means he now has time to go and work the election trail rather than spend his time in the Senate.”
For retiring Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, 64, there was no silver lining in last week’s Congressional results. A close personal friend of Reagan’s, he had long been touted as a potential successor. But despite Laxalt’s vigorous campaigning on behalf of Nevada Senate candidate James Santini, Democratic rival Harry Reid won the race. That abruptly ended speculation that Laxalt would still make a run for the White House.
Crucial: For the Democrats, the outlook was even murkier. Party pollster Paul Maslin insisted that the midterm results showed that “if we have a good candidate and a good message as a party, we can win the presidency and take control of the country.” But the crucial problem for the Democrats may be in coming up with a winning candidate. Indeed, 33 per cent of the Democrats polled by The New York Times and CBS News rejected the pollsters’ seven choices of candidates. The current frontrunner, retiring Colorado Senator Gary Hart, received only 26 per cent support, compared to 20 per cent for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. One dark-horse Democratic candidate is Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. He is a former professional basketball star and, as well, he intends to use the issue of tax reform as a springboard to the national prominence any candidate requires.
With both party nominations still wide open, the main objectives of the contenders will be building up war chests and staking out issues. Mindful of the midterm election results, observers said that Republican and Democratic hopefuls alike will strive to accommodate the new mood of the electorate. Said Republican pollster Phillips of last week’s election: “It moves both parties into the post-Reagan era and into a spirited competition for the centre of American politics.”
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