It has always been a solitary sport. And last week in Washington, Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas donned his swimming trunks, as he does five times a week in whatever city he finds himself, and churned up and down the pool of the Capitol Hill YMCA alone. Ever since he dived into the presidential campaign last April, he has used his freestyle prowess to demonstrate that he has vanquished the lymphatic cancer that forced him to resign his Massachusetts Senate seat seven years ago. But last week, after he learned that a Tennessee swim meet where he could have displayed his new stamina and butterfly stroke had been cancelled, his press secretary Peggy Connolly confided that he was “devastated.” For Tsongas, the frustration was hardly new. After four months of begging fellow Democrats to plunge into the presidential race with him, he still finds himself swimming alone.
With less than a year to go before the party’s nominating convention in New York City next July, and six months before the start of the Feb. 17 Iowa caucuses, the uncharismatic retired legislator remains the party’s only officially declared candidate. Over the past month, two would-be contenders, West Virginia Senator John Qay) Rockefeller and House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, announced that they would not run. And Tsongas can no longer hide his loneliness—or his exasperation that two other hopefuls, Iowa Senator Thomas Harkin and Arkansas Gov. William (Bill) Clinton, are still testing the waters. “There comes a point where you have to have competition,” he said. “I need other people in this race.” Added Tsongas: “We’re sending the wrong message to the country, and the message is: we can’t win. That more subtle message is very destructive to the Democratic party.”
In fact, many Democrats and Republicans alike have only one quarrel with Tsongas’s analysis: they say that there is nothing subtle
about the emptiness of this year’s campaign. As Iowans try to get accustomed to a preprimary summer without candidates flocking through their living rooms, William Schneider of Washington’s conservative American Enterprise Institute underlined the obvious conclusion. “Although nobody is admitting it publicly,” he said, “the subtext of what they are saying is that George Bush is unbeatable.” Agreed Robert Borosage of the liberal Institute for Policy Studies in Washington: “I don’t think anybody gets elected this time as a Democrat. Bush is unlikely to get beaten unless he does something really stupid.”
Boosting that perception, the President took six hours off from his Maine vacation last week to deliver a rousing crime-busting speech to the national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police in Pittsburgh, provoking thunderous applause and chants of “Four more years.” The 21-minute address was meant to launch former attorney general Richard Thornburgh’s bid for a Pennsylvania Senate seat. But to most spectators amid the flag-waving crowd, it looked and sounded more like a kickoff to Bush’s own re-election campaign. Although presidential aides have said that he feels no need to formally announce his candidacy until early in 1992, Bush evoked the same provocative themes that won him the White House three years ago. His praise for federal programs restricting prison furloughs served as a kind of code. The reference recalled Bush’s most controversial 1988 television ads, which featured a black convict who raped a white Maryland woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts jail. Some observers said that Bush was also trying to combat increasing criticism that he has neglected domestic problems for the more glamorous payoffs of foreign policy, while at the same time taking advantage of an issue that, polls show, still appeals to voters’ emotions. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last March, nearly four-fifths of respondents claimed that “the country is not making enough progress on crime.” But some critics caution that a law-and-order platform might not work such electoral magic for Bush this time around. As Republican political consultant Kevin Phillips noted, “You have problems running against crime in the streets when you have been running the streets for 10 or 12 years.”
There are also signs that Bush’s postwar glow of invincibility is beginning to fade. Although his personal popularity is still in the 70-per-cent range, recent polls have shown that voters say that the country is on the wrong track and harbor deep-rooted concerns about the economy. And Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar from Washington’s nonpartisan Brookings Institution, pointed out that any worsening of the recession could provide one of the few electoral rays of hope for the Democrats. Said Hess: “It is an awful thing to say, but a deepening recession would do it.”
Last week, party regulars were banking on two presidential hopefuls who have hinted that they will announce their candidacies by next month—each with a different prescription for the economy. In Little Rock, Ark., Clinton said that he was resigning as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s conservative wing, in order to form an exploratory presidential committee. Boyishly handsome and, as he celebrates his 45th birthday this week, young enough to be Bush’s son, Clinton has promised a decision by the end of September. But as he denounced the President for “no national vision, no national direction, no national policy,” he sounded as if he were already rehearsing his announcement speech.
That prospect has heartened many Democrats, especially those from the South. As they often point out, the only Democrat to win the White House in recent history was also a southern governor, Jimmy Carter. But Clinton’s centrism could cost him other votes— among liberals and the party’s black voting base. After a Democratic Leadership Council meeting in Cleveland this spring, he announced his opposition to racial hiring quotas, a remark that offended many Democrats as an apparent
carbon copy of Bush’s own policies. Said one liberal campaign strategist, who requested anonymity: “He has shown that he is a little more ruthless in the things he will say to get elected. I don’t think I can work with him, but I won’t work against him.”
Nor is Clinton’s candidacy trouble-free. His much-anticipated speech to the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta proved long and tedious—the delegates cheered when he said, “In conclusion ...” And in Little Rock, restaurant owner Robert McIntosh, known as “the Sweet Potato Pie King,” has distributed thousands of leaflets accusing the governor of indiscretions in his personal life. When Clinton told reporters that they should not be “the
moral police of the country,” and that his personal life was none of their business, he succeeded only in further stirring up the controversy.
Clinton’s entry into the presidential race would likely persuade another southern Democrat to stay on the sidelines: Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. Gore says that he is still considering his political options. As a member of the Senate armed services committee, he is one of the few potential Democratic candidates to boast any foreign-policy experience. And he can capitalize on his vote for the popular Persian Gulf War. But at 43, he may decide that he cannot afford to risk a second failed bid for the White House. Said Hess: “To lose again starts to put them in line for a late-night comedian’s joke.”
Clinton’s main threat could come from Harkin, an economic populist who has been preaching his Bush-bashing brand of traditional liberalism to fellow Iowans in recent months in what appears to be a primary dress rehearsal. He is expected to announce his presidential intentions
by mid-September, although most electionwatchers not only count him in, but also predict that he will win his home-state caucuses.
Who else will tread the back roads of Iowa and New Hampshire is anyone’s guess. Former aides say that Jesse Jackson, the party’s liberal conscience in the last election campaign, seems more tempted by the offer of a platform as a talk-show host at the Cable News Network than by a third try on the presidential hustings. And despite his announcement of an exploratory foray into New Hampshire, the Democrats’ other black hope, Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, has displayed a disquieting taste for petty political infighting. In the most recent case, he accused aides of his predecessor and longtime rival, Virginia Senator Charles Robb, of planting an electronic bug in a tree outside his statehouse office. After the governor’s own law-enforcement officials admitted that they had long ago informed him that the device was an antenna belonging to a Richmond radio station, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen denounced Wilder last week as “your basic political scoundrel.”
The one possible candidate whose reputation dwarfs all others is New York state Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose apparent indecision about whether to join the fray has won him the nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson.” The only contender with truly national recognition—as well as an Ill-million political war chest— Cuomo is the one prospect who the experts believe could risk entering the race late. “Mario could change everything,” said Borosage. “He is a big guy, so he
could wait until the last minute, letting the little ones squabble, and then come in as the savior.”
Cuomo has fuelled the suspense. At a meeting of mayors in Hyannis, Mass., earlier this month, he publicly scoffed at his own presidential prospects. But he did so while delivering a speech that Washington Post political columnist Mary McGrory said “could have been lifted intact and put on the TelePrompTer at a campaign stop.” In it, the governor argued that it was not so much Mario Cuomo whom Democrats were hailing, but rather his liberal message. Still, no one disputes that this season’s largely vacant campaign trail has already chalked up one loser—the American voter. In a country that he called “basically apolitical,” Hess said that presidential elections provide “the one opportunity every four years when Americans should be notified there are important issues to be debated.” But so far, in this summer of Paul Tsongas’s solo campaign, the most striking feature of the first post-Cold War presidential election seems to be resounding indifference.
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