Realignment blurs party lines
First the Democrats began copying the Republican computer-age fund-raising techniques. Then they built a television studio to keep up with slick GOP promotional efforts.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, it seems, Democrats are even beginning to judge their party leaders by Republican standards. Following the disastrous showing in the presidential elections and desertion by middle America, some Democratic lawmakers are casting about for leadership with style and philosophy that are closer to the GOP.
In this atmosphere Sen. Lawton Chiles, a moderate Floridian, takes the risky move of challenging minority leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the taciturn, behind-the-scenes specialist who has led Senate Democrats unchallenged since 1977.
His own ''inner voice'' told him to run, Senator Chiles said last week in announcing his last-minute decision. But he also was looking at the Republicans, who had just picked Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, an articulate and witty party spokesman, as their new majority leader. ''He's good,'' said the Floridian, who dropped a couple of quips in Senator Dole's own droll style.
Meanwhile, House Democrats reelected their top leaders, but they also advanced Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a young moderate, to Democratic caucus chairman. That move symbolizes the coming of age of a new generation of Democratic leaders.
One Democratic aide groused that the new wave of Democrats is fuzzing the differences between the parties. But Representative Gephardt, who seeks more frugal social programs and opposes abortion and school busing for desegregation, makes no apologies.
Democrats ''have to move closer to the middle'' to win back the 51 percent of voters they need, he said in an interview. If that means moving closer to the GOP viewpoint, ''then blurring those lines'' between parties ''is a necessary step,'' according to Gephardt.
The biggest surprise during the post-election Democratic soul-searching is the Chiles challenge, which will be settled Wednesday by secret ballot. For months the Capitol rumor mill carried reports of dissatisfaction with Senator Byrd, but the threat had seemed to die down.
Then came the trouncing at the polls in November. The Democrats picked up two Senate seats, bringing the margin to 47-to-53, but party leaders worry that they may be heading for permanent minority status. ''I think many, many Democrats feel that we have to convince the American people that we are a party that represents middle America,'' Chiles said, declaring himself to be a ''fellow in the middle.''
The folksy and slow-talking Southerner, who won his Senate seat in 1970 by literally walking through Florida, has become known as a coalition builder during the past two years. As ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, he forged a budget in 1982 that passed the GOP-controlled Senate.
The leadership battle goes beyond political philosophy, since Byrd's voting record is also moderate. Chiles's argument is chiefly that his party needs a ''new face'' at the helm, especially to prepare for 1986, when Democrats are seen as having their last best shot at retaking the Senate during this decade. Twenty-two GOP seats, and only 12 Democratic ones, will be up for reelection.
While Chiles carefully avoided charging that Byrd cannot match the telegenic and forceful Dole, that premise clearly lies behind his candidacy. Chiles said he had received numerous calls from colleagues and was convinced that a ''majority'' was dissatisfied, although he does not claim to have the votes to win.