After a fund-raising lunch in Houston last week, Democratic presidential hopeful Bruce Babbitt noted with humor that televised political debates usually put him to sleep. For the estimated 10 million viewers who tuned in to public television to watch Babbitt and six other Democratic presidential contenders in a special live edition of Firing Line only hours later, the former Arizona governor’s comments may have seemed prophetic. What had been billed as a provocative two-hour sparring match turned out to be more of an amiable talk show—short on both confrontation and charisma. Said Houston Post TV columnist Ken Hoffman: “A network would have cancelled this sewing circle of boredom.”
Agreed Dale Napier, a 33-year-old computer consultant who showed up at Houston’s Wortham Theatre Center in search of a candidate: “I was looking for sparks. But as far as I’ve seen so far, these guys are all second-stringers.”
Opting to criticize Ronald Reagan instead of each other, the seven dark-horse candidates emerged from their first national showcase much as they had entered it: still battling anonymity and largely indistinguishable from one another. All of them attacked the administration’s two most sacred policy cornerstones— the space-based antimissile defence system known as Star Wars and aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. Their only differences surfaced on trade and taxes, but in a party torn by internal bloodletting for the past seven years,
they were so civil that some critics charged they may have harmed their individual causes. Said Robert Strauss, the former party chairman who cohosted the debate with archconservative columnist William F. Buckley: “They won’t get nasty until they think it will do them some good.”
One editorial writer dubbed the low-
profile candidates “the seven dwarfs” after front-runner Gary Hart’s spectacular political demise two months ago following revelations about his friendship with Miami model Donna Rice. And last week the seven—Babbitt, Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Illinois
Senator Paul Simon, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore and Chicago civil rights leader Jesse Jackson—proved that the Democrats still had no outstanding candidate. Indeed, the debate left many party supporters puzzling over who to support only seven months before the first caucus and primary next February in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Some Democrats admitted that they still felt betrayed by Hart’s ignominious end. Said Napier, a disillusioned former Hart supporter: “I don’t want to get burned by a candidate again.” Clearly aware of such caution, the candidates played up their wholesome family ties with folksy, sometimes awkward films featuring their wives and
kids. One pretaped biography of the immaculately coiffed Gephardt—posing with his blond wife, Jane, and three freckled offspring—prompted a Democrat in the audience to note that all the Gephardts lacked for a storybook “Dick and Jane” image was a dog named Spot.
But if the debate failed to produce a Democratic front-runner, some party members clearly took comfort in the fact that the Republicans still did not have one either. Neither Vice-President George Bush nor Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole has managed to capture the imagination of the public. Indeed, Wade Birdwell, a Houston attorney who calls himself a reformed “conservative Republican,” has now thrown his support behind Biden, a liberal. Said Birdwell: “I don’t see anything in the
Republican party that has the passion or straightforwardness or personal integrity that Joe Biden has.” Still, as the candidates and their image-makers descended on Houston in a fleet of stretch limousines —their chief financial backers in tow in a raft of chartered luxury buses—many Democrats admitted that the 1988 race had been complicated by another source of embarrassment. Party officials have repeatedly denied that a frontrunner has emerged to replace Hart, when in fact one has: Jackson, whose presidential bid four years ago makes him the only candidate whose name is a household word. Indeed, recent public opinion polls have put Jackson as many as nine points ahead of his nearest rival, Massachusetts’ Dukakis. Conservative columnist Robert Novak asked party
chairman Paul Kirk on television two months ago, “Isn’t it a fact that you just don’t call him a front-runner because he’s black?”
But the Democrats cannot afford to alienate a leader whose black constituency is essential to victory. In a jet paid for by his Chicago-based Rainbow Coalition, Jackson has been crisscrossing the country trying to broaden his base of support. He has milked cows in Iowa
to win over the white farm belt and joined picket lines in declining factory towns to preach his populist message that the economically disenfranchised have to join together to have any clout. So far, he has drawn the largest crowds and won the most headlines for his quotable defiance of the corporate establishment. Jackson denies that he has purposely toned down his fiery rhetoric, sprinkled with alliteration and rhyming couplets. But he seemed so subdued during the debate that some supporters expressed disappointment with his tailored-for-TV coolness. Said one crestfallen Jackson fan: “He was trying to be so statesmanlike that he never even got off one rhyme.”
Critics agreed that the debate had no clear winners or losers, but most analysts said that the candidates who
gained most were the least known: Simon and Gore. Media consultants unanimously ranked Dukakis—a short, fast-talking dynamo who is campaigning on his economic record as governor of Massachusetts—as the most polished performer. Said Frank Greer, a Democratic image-making consultant: “Michael Dukakis comes across as knowl-
edgeable, intelligent, very convincing, and has an intimate style that relates well to television.” Even before the debate, many of the party’s moneymen seemed to agree. In barely two months, Dukakis’s Kennedy family connections and his tough-talking economic message-stressing “hard choices” but rejecting protectionist trade measures— have won him the biggest war chest: $4.5 million.
In one recent fund-raising dinner in New York alone, Dukakis garnered $1.3 million—prompting conservative William Schneider of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute to dub him “the establishment liberal.” He has also attracted most of the defectors from Hart’s campaign, including the former candidate’s national political director, Paul Tully. Capitalizing on his roots as the son of Greek immigrants who “made the American dream come true,” Dukakis has also tried to liven up his image as a bloodless technocrat with sports talk and down-home photographs of himself puttering in his beloved vegetable garden.
According to a New York Times' post-debate poll in Iowa, Simon— who entered the race as the darkest of the dark horses—gained the most ground. At 58 the oldest contender, he staked out his position as the most traditional liberal—both on issues and in style. Emphasizing that he had refused to give in to media consultants who insisted that he give up his anachronistic red bow tie and horn-rims— and change his views to suit the public opinion polls —Simon instead turned his old-fashioned approach into a plus. “If you want the slick packaged product, I’m not your candidate,” he said. As a former newspaper publisher and state legislator crusading against corruption, he has spent most of his life as the odd man out. But his campaign has attracted major luminaries: former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Edgar has signed on as his finance chairman and prominent newspaper columnist and old friend James Kilpatrick as his press secretary.
Gore, at 39 the youngest of the candidates, entered the debate the least
known. In fact, he was the only candidate whose wife—Mary Elizabeth (Tipper) Gore, who has led the fight against obscene rock lyrics—was more famous than he was. Not only has she become the butt of rock stars’ jokes, but the pretty blond mother of four has written a best-seller, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. Despite a nervous, earnest style and wooden delivery in the debate, Gore, a strong supporter of disarmament, was the only candidate to best Buckley in a heated exchange over Star Wars. Said supporter Jeanette Hyde: “He started out a long, long shot. But now he’s a contender.”
But the biggest boost to Gore’s candidacy may be not his performance or the fact that he is a selfdescribed “raging moderate,” but his biographical profile. In the 1988 presidential election, when a majority of voters will be under 45 for the first time, Gore’s youth makes him appealing to financial backers. In a key memo on the election, party pollster Patrick Caddell predicted,
“In 1988 no factor will be more crucial than the politics of the baby boom generation.” And in summing up the debate, party chairman Kirk boasted that the Democratic party itself had been the ultimate winner, introducing to the country its “new generation of leaders.” In fact, all the Democratic candidates are youthful— with an average age of 47—compared with the current Republican hopefuls, whose ages average 59.
Indeed, the candidate Caddell had in mind in his memo to appeal to the youth vote was not Gore but Caddell’s friend Biden. Elected in 1972 as one of the youngest senators ever, Biden suffered personal tragedy during his early political career. Just before he was sworn into office, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Now remarried to Jill, an attractive blonde, he makes the nightly 90-minute commute home to Delaware while holding down the chairmanship of the Senate judiciary committee. In fact, before the debate, Biden looked the most presidential as he arrived late in Houston from a Senate judiciary committee meeting in Washington for a press conference on the explosive Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork (page 18).
And Bork’s coming confirmation hearings will provide him with a national platform for his liberal idealism and lightning intelligence. Now 44, Biden has made the cornerstone of his campaign a stirring generational rallying cry. As he said in his closing debate speech, “I believe my generation’s time has come to pick up where we left off in the Sixties.”
To many party movers, even more compelling than Gore’s youth are his Southern roots. Up to 40 per cent of the delegates to the Democratic convention will be selected on “Super
Tuesday,” March 8, 1988, in primaries in 20 states—more than half in the South. And many key Democrats are convinced that no northern liberal can break the Republicans’ growing strength among Southern voters. Said Nathan Landow, a powerful Maryland developer who heads a committee of 48 of the party’s biggest contributors: “In my opinion, it’s criticial for us to have a candidate from the South.” In fact, Landow—who said he was “never comfortable with Hart”—personally persuaded Gore to run, after looking at Caddell’s study of the ideal candidate’s demographic and geographic profile. Gore played up his roots, formally launching his campaign in his small Tennessee home town of Carthage last
week. But critics caution that if Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, a conservative Democrat, decides to enter the 1988 race, Gore’s Southern appeal is doomed.
Until that time, Gore’s chief rival in the South is Gephardt, who at 46 boasts a similar profile. His Middle American image and middle-of-theroad views make him symbolic of the so-called “new breed” of Democrat. Gephardt’s chief claim to fame has been the controversial protectionist amendment to the House trade bill that bears his name and greatly concerns Canadian officials: its provisions call for mandatory retaliation against any country registering an excessive trade surplus with the United States through unfair trade practices. Defending the amendment against discreet attacks by Dukakis, Babbitt and Biden, Gephardt called it “not protectionism; it’s anti-patsyism.” And his stand has won him labor’s staunch support. But he has managed to alienate both feminists and right-to-lifers with his recent about-face on abortion, dropping his long-standing push for a constitutional amendment that would ban it.
The only candidate to suffer in the debate was Babbitt —not for such hard-nosed economic ideas as giving a means test for social benefits, but for his lumbering delivery and erratic, over5 anxious gestures. Said TV £ consultant David Garth: I “He seemed ill at ease.” Babbitt—the only candidate to make a firm stand on the environment and call for tough controls to reduce acid rain—argues that his respected nine-year record as a liberal governor of a conservative Sunbelt state counts for more than his apparent lack of charisma. Said Babbitt, “There is such a thing as a charisma of competence.”
To the relief of the seven who failed to capture the popular imagination last week, one noncandidate—whose entry onto the scene could again dwarf them all—seemed to agree. As New York Gov. Mario Cuomo observed: “This time around, people are not looking for charisma. They are apt to be suspicious because of Reagan.”
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