The primary Hart attack

Michael Posner March 12 1984

The primary Hart attack

Michael Posner March 12 1984

The primary Hart attack


Michael Posner

It seemed clear that the only thing standing between former vice-president Walter (Fritz) Mondale and the Democratic nomination for president was the calendar. Until last week. With more money, more endorsements and more thorough organization than any other candidate, Mondale had begun what looked like a ceremonial march to the party’s July nominating convention. Then the voters of New Hampshire radically altered the entire outlook for the rest of the campaign.

They handed Colorado Senator Gary Hart, until then a dark horse at best, a stunning landslide in the nation’s first primary—41 per cent to Mondale’s 29 per cent.

New Hampshire’s verdict scrambled the previously tidy campaign calculus. Within 48 hours three candidates—

Senators Ernest Hollings (S.C.) and Alan Cranston (Calif.), along with former Florida governor Reubin Askew—withdrew from the race. They finished at the bottom of the pack and, as Cranston put it, they knew “when to dream and how to count votes.” Three others, former senator George McGovern, Senator John Glenn (Ohio) and Rev. Jesse Jackson, began an intensive drive to improve their performances on Super Tuesday—the March 13 extravaganza of 10 primaries and delegate selection caucuses. McGovern is counting on a strong performance in Massachusetts, while Glenn and particularly Jackson rest their hopes on impressive showings in the South.

New Hampshire shattered the sense that Mondale’s nomination was inevitable. Before Feb. 28 he had been all but anointed. After the primary the nomination was suddenly up for grabs. Democrats were left with a script that, at least temporarily, has no ending. “It is now clear that there is a different race,”

Mondale said. “We are in for a long, tough fight that could go all the way to the convention. It’s a two-man race and it is very close.” Counting on his superior organization, Mondale challenged Hart to compete in all three southern primary states on March 13—Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Hart, basking in the glow of his unexpected triumph, seized the gauntlet.

Beginning a three-day swing through the South, he said, “Well,

Fritz, here I am.”

In retrospect, Hart’s New Hampshire victory was a logical sequel to his performance a week earlier in the Iowa caucuses. By finishing second to Móndale and ahead of Glenn in Iowa,

Hart established himself as a credible alternative for voters disenchanted with the front-runners.

Late polls in New Hampshire showed Hart quickly closing the gap between himself and Mondale. Those gave him added momentum—an indispensable ingredient in the political process. As well, New Hampshire has always been unkind to front-runners. In 1964, when Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller were battling for the Republican nomination, the Granite State’s voters obstinately chose Henry Cabot Lodge—then ambassador to Vietnam—as a write-in candidate. In 1968 they helped persuade President Lyndon Johnson not to stand for re-election, giving then Senator Eugene McCarthy 42 per cent of the vote. In 1972 New Hampshire’s rocky shoals also o wrecked the hopes of 2 Senator Edmund Mus= kie. McGovern beat him ^and went on to win the ö nomination. And in 1976 “ an unknown Jimmy Carter won the primary, launching his victorious quest for the presidency. Indeed, since 1952 no president has been elected without first winning in New Hampshire—an unfortunate omen for Mondale.

But precedent is clearly not Mondale’s only reason for concern. Exit-poll soundings suggested that his candidacy may be in serious trouble. Some of those derive from the political makeup of New Hampshire itself. Sparsely unionized, it has more registered independents than registered Democrats. It is also the sort of state where voters have customarily put a premium on door-todoor, face-to-face campaigning. As a result of that, neither Mondale’s endorsement by the AFL-CIO nor his ability to buy television time were of much help. Indeed,

half the union members who voted chose Hart. Others who might have selected Mondale were annoyed that he spent most of the 48 hours before the vote campaigning in Massachusetts.

Last week’s primary exposed other areas of vulnerability in Móndale as well. As Carter’s former vice-president, he still carries the baggage, in many voters’ minds, of that administration’s failures. At the same time, Mondale’s many endorsements—from labor, teachers and other special interest groups—have left him open to the charge that he is no longer his own man. At one pre-primary debate Hart asked Mondale to cite one instance in which his platform differed from organized labor’s. Mondale could not do it. In a state that savors independence—New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die”—Big

Labor’s embrace was a major liability for the front-runner.

Another Mondale handicap is his personality. New Hampshire critics nicknamed him Walter Monotone, and his own campaign officials, who spent 18 months in the state, conceded that Mondale’s support was never much higher than 40 per cent. Much of that, it now seems, was “soft”—capable of being wooed away. Finally, and most damaging of all, was the perception— carefully fostered by his opponents— that Mondale cannot beat President Ronald Reagan in November. “It’s right there in front of us, ladies and gentlemen,” Hollings told a gathering one

day before the vote. Unless the Mondale juggernaut was stopped, said Hollings, “New Hampshire will be the first primary, the last primary and the election all in one day.”

Hart, too, played on that theme. His TV ads urged voters to reject “politicians who promise everything.” His speeches stressed Mondale’s links with the uninspiring past and Hart’s own with the challenging future. Echoing former president John F. Kennedy— and, with his telegenic image, even resembling J.F.K.—Hart said, “It is time to get the country on the move again.” Hart—at 47, eight years younger than Mondale—pitched his appeal at voters under the age of 45 and at women, outscoring his opponent heavily in both categories. Mondale’s one source of strength proved to be voters over 50,

and many of them were kept away from the polls by a savage blizzard that roared through the northern state.

The collapse of the lesser candidates was another major factor in Hart’s favor. That was also the case with Jackson’s belated admission that he had privately referred to Jews as “Hymies” and to New York City as “Hymietown,” as well as Glenn’s continuing failure to find a conservative Democratic constituency. There are such voters in New Hampshire, but they tend to vote Republican. In fact, five per cent of Democrats cast ballots for Reagan, with the result that the President finished ahead of Hollings, Askew and Cranston. At

the same time, five per cent of Republicans voted for Hart, suggesting that he and his policies may have some appeal to the moderate wing of the GOP.

Hart’s victory will quickly attract assets that his campaign desperately needs: money and volunteers. He is already $500,000 in debt, and his organization in many states is skeletal. But success will also invite greater scrutiny into the candidate himself—and the views he represents. Politically, Gary Hart is a determined liberal. An ardent champion of arms control and the nuclear freeze, he has promoted tighter controls on the manufacture of plutonium as a way to prevent the spread of nuclear capability. In Central America he has recommended that Washington remove military advisers from Honduras and cut aid to El Salvador until its

government has dismantled its rightwing death squads. In the Middle East Hart was an early advocate of the withdrawal of U.S. marines from Lebanon. And during the last Democratic candidates’ debate, the week before New Hampshire, Hart said he would defend U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf with air and sea power, but not ground forces.

A senator since 1975, Hart has made his greatest mark as a critic of military policy. He has vowed to cut the Pentagon’s budget by $100 billion over the next five years and has long advocated a wholesale shift in defence tactics— away from large, immobile weapons systems to smaller, more accurate and

cheaper armaments. On domestic issues Hart has been awarded membership in the neoliberal camp—Democrats who view industrial policy as a strategy for resurrecting American competitiveness in the world economy. He rejects the label but tends to support the basic message. Hart has proposed negotiations among labor, management and government to find solutions to obsolete or ailing industries and, unlike Móndale, he is opposed to protectionist legislation that would impose minimum-content quotas on all cars sold in the United States.

Much less is known about Hart’s personal life. Partly by design, Hart rarely discusses it. “Anytime a candidate talks about himself, I get turned off,” he said earlier this year. “I don’t have to sell myself. I have to sell the need to change generations of leadership.” Hart is a native of Ottawa, Kan. His family name was Hartpence, but he changed it before entering politics. An evangelical Protestant, he studied for the ministry at a Nazarene college in Oklahoma and later at Yale’s Divinity School. But Kennedy’s 1960 election campaign exposed Hart to the potential of public service through political activity. Said Hart: “Most people my age weren’t interested in politics, because that’s what guys who smoked cigars did. Kennedy legitimized politics. Now public service was an honorable thing.”

He turned from religion to law, earned a degree from Yale Law School, worked for the justice and interior departments in Washington, practised privately in Denver and, in 1972, managed McGovern’s doomed presidential campaign against former president Richard Nixon. Two years later, at 37, he won his Colorado Senate seat decisively, even then championing a new approach to American liberalism.

The central issue now is whether Hart can parlay the verdict in New Hampshire into additional victories. A poor showing on Super Tuesday would brake his momentum abruptly. On the other hand, another clear-cut win or two might be enough to wound Mondale’s candidacy fatally. Mondale’s campaign was based on the premise that he could wrap up the nomination early. To that end, the former vice-president spent 75 per cent of his permitted funds even before the first primary ballots were cast. If the race tightens, Mondale’s cash advantage will erode quickly. Now, as he conceded last week, he will have to change tactics, speeches and TV ads and adopt a whole new strategy. Despite New Hampshire, he remains the front-runner. But voters no longer see him as unbeatable, and in highly charged political campaigns their perceptions are ultimately what matter most.