It should have been the resounding kickoff to Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign—the traditional Labor Day parade through Manhattan’s canyons. But with a cross-country swing to California about to begin, Mondale—and vice-presidential running mate Geraldine Ferraro—had to leave before most of the spectators arrived, although not before one TV crew caught some wounding footage of them waving to almost empty streets.
The Democrats’ stumbling campaign kickoff contrasted sharply with President Ronald Reagan’s California launch of his own re-election effort. Last week, without naming his Democratic opponents, Reagan dismissed them as pessimists who view life “darkly through the prism of the past.” The result: a hands-down Reagan victory in the first of the 64 daily “image wars” that the two candidates will wage between Labor Day and Nov. 6.
By midweek Mondale rebounded, hitting hard at Reagan’s tax policies, arms control paralysis, and huge budget deficits. Dropping his stiff, button-down manner, Mondale told union meatcutters in a Los Angeles suburb that if Reagan is re-elected, “The rich will get richer and the average American will get poorer.” That sort of gloves-off fervor was exactly what many of Mondale’s strongest supporters wanted to hear last week. Frustrated by the campaign’s ineffective start, California Representative Tony Coelho declared that Móndale “has to show the American public that he has fire in his belly, that he’s willing to lead.”
Judging by last week’s impassioned rhetoric, Mondale intends to do just that. From Los Angeles to Washington the former vice-president hammered at Reagan’s description of politics and religion as “inseparable.” That view, he said, “will corrupt our faith and divide our nation.” Stung by the attacks, Reagan denied—in an exchange of letters with television producer Norman Lear—that he was using the presidency
to promote “one religion over all others.”
Reagan is currently enjoying a commanding 59to 36-point lead over his Democratic challenger in public opinion
surveys. And for Mondale, who is still trying to overcome a negative image as Jimmy Carter’s vice-president, that advantage represents a formidable obstacle. As well, the Democrats have still not sketched out a unifying theme for their campaign. Instead, they plan to stress “issues” against a president immensely skilled on television and content to stick to upbeat generalities.
Mondale’s political deficit is even
worse than the polls show. Victory is ultimately determined by the electoral college votes of individual states. And Reagan’s lead in the South and West is now so secure that his campaign can focus on eroding Mondale’s own regional strengths: bluecollar workers, Catholics and unionists in the Northeast and Midwest. In Texas, a crucial “swing state,” with 29 of the 270 electoral votes Mondale is relying on massive registration drives and large voter turnouts to make up a 30-point deficit. In California, where he trails by 13 per cent, Mondale aides are counting on a revival of enthusiasm for Ferraro to close the gap by November.
Among key constituencies, Mondale’s 88to 5-per-cent lead among blacks may be offset by Reagan’s sizable edge among whites. At the same time, although Mondale now captures about half of all women’s votes, men favor Reagan by more than 60 per cent—a “gender gap” deepened by Reagan’s commitment to continued arms spending and renewed strength. Mondale’s best chance of victory may lie in his ability to arouse voters’ suspicions about the “fairness” of the economic recovery and their fears about the future of the arms race and Central America.
To win in November, Móndale will have to restore the old Democratic coalition, consistid ing of labor, blacks, Hispanics and Jews. That would secure a swath of states from New England and New York westward through the industrial “rust belt.” Discontent among farmers could also bring the Midwest into Mondale’s column. Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, in addition to two or three southern states, might then put Mondale within reach of the electoral votes needed to win the White House. Still, most analysts agree that such an accomplishment would be little short of a political miracle. And with election day just eight weeks away, the challenger has no time to waste and little room for error.
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