Mondale after Hart’s revival

Michael Posner May 21 1984

Mondale after Hart’s revival

Michael Posner May 21 1984

Mondale after Hart’s revival


Michael Posner

It was a scene for which few Democrats were prepared. In a Washington hotel ballroom last week, a jubilant Gary Hart held a victory celebration. Against heavy odds, the Colorado senator had staged a strong rally in his faltering campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination by winning primaries in two critical states—Ohio and Indiana—beating former vice-president Walter Mondale, the front-runner, by narrow margins. Until last week,

Hart had not won a primary since late March, and many observers had quietly begun to write him out of the running.

But Hart’s Midwest victories revived his campaign and ensured a spirited fight in the eight remaining contests before the party’s July convention in San Francisco. Said Hart to his exuberant supporters: “Welcome to the fourth quarter.”

Despite the surge in Hart’s support, Mondale remains the likely choice of Democrats to face President Ronald Reagan in November. Móndale scored convincing victories last week in Texas, Maryland and North Carolina, bringing his delegate total to more than 1,500, with 1,967 needed to win at the convention. Indeed, campaign chairman James Johnson said that Mondale would have as many as 1,800 committed delegates before the next—and final—round of primaries in California, New Jersey and elsewhere June 5. The June votes, Johnson added, would put Mondale over the top.

Still, Mondale’s failure to push Hart out of contention raised new questions about the Minnesotan’s candidacy. Most Democrats say they are convinced that Reagan will be a far more formidable opponent than Hart and opinion

polls continue to show the president with a wide lead over Mondale. At the same time, the former vice-president has never quite succeeded in eliminating public concerns about his close ties to organized labor and other special interest groups. Indeed, in both Indiana and Ohio last week, exit poll surveys indicated that voters believe that

unions wield too much power.

Hart’s revival will also force Mondale to renew attacks on the Coloradan’s record and fitness for office. That strategy constrains him from focusing the campaign directly on the Reagan administration’s policies. The infighting will probably also tarnish the Democrats’ record among voters. Said Robert Strauss, a Mondale supporter and senior party strategist: “It’s back to the salt mines. It does not mean Mondale is

not inevitable. It just means he has got a little tougher road now.”

Mondale’s advisers cited several reasons for the primary losses: lack of aggression, complacency and not enough campaign time spent in the Midwest. In fact, they had become so confident that a Mondale coronation was inevitable that they had held some exploratory peace-making meetings with both the Hart and the Jesse Jackson campaigns. But they denied that Hart’s wins were a result of a growing antiMondale sentiment. Declared campaign manager Robert Beckel: “I don’t think there is any indication that people went out and voted against Walter Mondale.”

Still, Mondale clearly did make strategic planning errors. While he was concentrating his resources on Texas— where he won the caucuses by a 2 to 1 margin—Hart was crisscrossing Ohio and Indiana emphasizing Mondale’s record during his years in the Jimmy Carter White House. At the same time, Hart spent twice as much money on TV ads, and he relied on a political organization that, for once, was superior to Mondale’s. The commercials often featured interviews with o blue-collar workers whose spokesmen said: “Mondale had his chance and did nothing. Why take him again?” Hart also carried a majority of independent voters, who—according to Ohio electoral laws—are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. In most areas of the country, Hart has drawn his greatest strength from younger, more affluent independents.

The quest for the Democratic nomination has begun to resemble a protracted tug-of-war in which both sides ruthlessly exploit their strengths but are unable to bring the contest to a close. Mondale appeared to have the

nomination sewn up until Hart’s upset win in New Hampshire in February. That started the senator on a dazzling political advance that threatened to obliterate his opponent. But Mondale recovered in March, first in the South and later in the northeast, largely by raising doubts about Hart’s readiness for the presidency. But the revival was not strong enough to prevent Hart’s comeback last week.

The senator himself interpreted the pendulum swing of the campaign as an affirmation of his basic message. “The party itself,” he said, “is struggling over a very, very difficult decision: how to identify with the best of our past, but

how to achieve those values with new policies in a changing age.”

Hart’s advisers say that theme will sell particularly well in the remaining primary states. At the weekend, Hart held a big lead in both Nebraska and Oregon, which prepared to vote this week. Polls in California and South Dakota also showed Hart leading, but surveys in heavily unionized New Jersey and Hispanic-rich New Mexico gave Móndale a slight lead. All of those states hold primaries on June 5. West Virginia (also on June 5) is almost certain to endorse Mondale.

Hart still faces formidable obstacles. For one thing, to prevent Mondale from reaching the 1,967 delegate level, he may have to win 75 per cent of the 571 delegates who remain to be chosen. For another, about 258 delegates will be selected outside the primary process by state party officials and another

339 are officially uncommitted.

One of Hart’s major difficulties is that many uncommitteds are rank-andfile Democrats, party officials at city and state levels who form the Democratic establishment that the senator has consistently attacked. Now, courting those delegates will require more money than the campaign treasury currently holds. Officials estimate that Hart will need $80,000 a day for the next four weeks—twice as much as fundraising efforts are producing.

Most party insiders, including Strauss, seriously doubt that Hart’s plan can work. Indeed, many say that Hart’s razor-thin victories last week

demonstrated the basic weakness of his candidacy. Said one adviser: “The failure to do better in Indiana and Ohio is a Hart problem more than a Mondale problem, because people have already said they do not want Móndale.” As a result, he added, the senator’s call for new leadership is appealing, but many people ask: “Is this the guy to lead the party?”

Even if Hart wins the nomination, his repeated attacks on organized labor and other traditional power blocs may handicap him severely in the presidential campaign. Said Delaware Democratic Senator Joseph Biden: “How is Gary going to come out of this as a nominee without [having] a Democratic party assured of defeat, where they just sit on their hands?”

Mondale’s challenge is to wrap up the nomination as early as possible in order to ensure that a divisive and acri-

monious fight is not waged on the convention floor. “We want to arrange a convention which is a kickoff to the general election campaign, rather than the bellicose end to the primary campaign,” one Mondale aide said last week.

But Hart is not the only candidate who threatens Democratic harmony. Rev. Jesse Jackson already claims 300 delegates and he has been insistent in demanding abolition of the runoff primary system. Used in 10 southern states, the runoff means that no candidate can be elected without securing a majority vote. Jackson regards the system as prejudicial to blacks. Last month, he persuaded Democratic Na-

tional Committee chairman Charles Manatt to raise the issue with the party chairman in each state. But last week the state chairmen refused to change the rules. Said Georgia’s Bert Lance: “This is the wrong issue at the wrong time in the wrong place. Instead of us changing, I wish the rest of the country would change and be like us.”

That decision was certain to anger Jackson. He has campaigned strongly against the runoff system, and most observers believe that some concessions will have to be made. The eventual nominee may at least launch an in-depth study in return for Jackson’s support of overall party positions. Some agreement will be needed—either before San Francisco or on the convention floorin order for the Democrats to maintain unity. But Lance, for one, said, “ The unity effort has been sort of delayed for a little while—probably until June 5.”