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As Democrats tangle, Bumpers of Arkansas seen as V-P timber

By Julia MaloneStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 1984


The long, brutal Democratic primary campaign exposed deep doubts within the party that its candidate could defeat President Reagan, plus a persistent longing for some mystery candidate who could.

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One of those mentioned as a distant hope was once an obscure country lawyer who says there is now ''no chance'' for a surprise candidate to emerge at the convention next month. Too much time, money, energy, and shoe leather have already gone into the campaign, says Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas.

The man who didn't run admits to twinges of regret, but he also says that even if he had, ''a lot of Democrats'' would still be saying the President was unbeatable, ''and I wouldn't look any better to them than anybody else did.''

Senator Bumpers, the object of presidential and now vice-presidential speculation, began his meteoric political climb only 14 years ago in his tiny west Arkansas hometown of Charleston. There he honed his now-famous speaking skill by arguing before juries and by listening to his father, a hardware dealer , give speeches at local events. He made an early, unsuccessful attempt to become a state representative.

Mostly unknown in his state in 1970, he sprang into the governor's office and then into the US Senate, defeating three Arkansas political giants in the process.

''He was one of the best governors we've ever had,'' says conservative columnist John R. Starr of the Arkansas Democrat, probably the harshest critic of Mr. Bumpers's senatorial performance.

Mr. Starr recalls his first meeting with Bumpers. ''He came strolling down a gravel path at Blanchard Cavern,'' a north Arkansas cave, during the dedication by the National Forest Service. The ''major'' gubernatorial candidates were on hand, surrounded by their entourages. Political newcomer Bumpers was accompanied only by a nephew who served as his aide. ''Nobody took him seriously,'' says Starr.

Bumpers won the race over both Democratic former Gov. Orval E. Faubus and incumbent Republican Winthrop Rockefeller. He later went on to defeat Democrat Sen. J. William Fulbright, the legendary Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and win reelection amid the Republican landslide of 1980.

During his years in Washington, Bumpers has earned respect for his eloquence on the Senate floor (he rarely uses a text for his almost daily intonations) and for his daring voting record, which is far more liberal than his constituency. He was the only Southern senator who opposed a bill in 1982 to restrict the courts' ability to order busing for school desegregation.

Back in Little Rock, Starr's view is that ''He got up to Washington and fell with the Eastern establishment crowd'' and lost touch with his fellow Arkansans. But the columnist nonetheless says Bumpers would have made a good presidential candidate.

''He'd be a better candidate'' than either Walter F. Mondale or Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, the journalist says.

Bumpers quashed talk of emerging as the San Francisco surprise. But relaxing in shirt-sleeves in his senatorial office, he is clearly itching for the campaign stump, or at least for a chance to join the charge on President Reagan's record.

The senator is a little sorry that, after taking a test jog down the campaign trail a year ago, he decided not to run in the presidential marathon. ''From a political standpoint it might have been a mistake,'' he says. ''On hindsight, it looks like it might have been doable.''

He maintains that he has lost no sleep over the decision, based mainly on lack of money. But his lengthy soul-searching over whether to run left questions about his decisiveness. He answers with jokes on himself. He told a Maryland Democratic Party banquet recently that one voter a year ago warned him to hurry up and decide to run, because ''you may peak before you announce.''