Presidential candidates: two years before the vote

JAMES Reston, that Scotsman-turned-American, that sportswriter-turned-journalistic-pundit, once set about stirring up among a dozen or so of his journalistic colleagues all the trouble of which the Scots are fully capable. We were all members of the Pulitzer Prize Board, that collection of alleged journalistic luminaries, which makes the final decision on the Pulitzer prizes.

Reston thought it would be fun to put our predictive journalistic powers to the test. Meeting a year before the Ford-Carter presidential election, he required us all to make written estimates of the outcome. Reston carefully pocketed the ballots. He produced them a year later, when we met again. Few of us would have won Pulitzer prizes for prescience. Most of us were wrong.

All of which is to warn against journalists bearing predictions two years before the l988 presidential election.

Even so, with summer waning, brace yourself for a flurry of stories about who's up, who's down, in the presidential stakes.

On the Republican side, Vice-President Bush has been a loyal Reagan lieutenant and sees himself as the political heir-apparent. But being a front-runner is sometimes hazardous to one's political health and there are a lot of curmudgeons who wonder whether George has the Right Stuff.

Rep. Jack Kemp of New York is one of them. He thinks he is Reagan's ideological heir and does have the Right Stuff. But the question is whether Jack's Right Stuff is too far to the right for him to get elected by a majority of the people.

Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada is wondering whether he isn't the man to carry the banner of the Reagan revolution once again into the White House, because maybe Bush and Kemp can't make it. He is personable but comes from the gambling state of Nevada and needs to get resolved a big libel case against the McClatchy Newspapers over casino connections.

A couple of other longtime inhabitants of the Senate envision themselves in the White House. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas has chalked up a quietly effective record. He is one of the best one-line humorists on the political scene. But if Dole were to run, he would have to buy off his wife, a cabinet secretary and ambitious in her own right, who is occasionally mentioned as a dark-horse vice-presidential candidate.

Meanwhile former Senator Howard Baker is a workmanlike candidate, but his profile has been low for the past year or so and his fight for the presidency would be long and uphill. Preacher-politician Pat Robertson is not likely to become president but will use the campaign to air his views and ideology. Nor are we likely to see Alexander Haig again in the White House, or any of the other half-dozen professed candidates on the Republican fringe.

For Democrats a big question is Lee Iacocca. Will he or won't he? My guess is he won't, but then look at my record on presidential predictions. And if it turns out he will, I don't think he can get elected. And if he does, I don't think he would be a good president. But he sure does know how to run an automobile company.

Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado faces the same hazards as front-runner as does George Bush. There are all kinds of ways he can slip along the precarious path to the White House.

Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York is a sweep-you-off-your-feet orator. But he might be more dangerous as a competitor to other Democratic contenders than he would to a right-of-center Republican candidate for the presidency. If, as the polls suggest, the bulk of Americans want a continuation of conservatism, Cuomo's brand of liberalism might be hard to sell.

Like preacher-politician Pat Robertson, preacher-politician Jesse Jackson probably isn't going to be president but will use the campaign to further his own positions and policies.

And if the Democratic leaders should falter, waiting in the wings is a string of able young rivals: the Chuck Robbs, the Bill Bradleys, the Richard Gephardts. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware is in there too, although some people think the snarling TV pictures of him on South Africa, followed by his interrogation of Justice William Rehnquist, may have hurt him. Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachussetts, who has made his state an economic success story and who has local Republicans in bumbling disarray, is also thought to see the sirens of the White House beckoning him when he dreams at night.

That's where we stand two years before the vote. Please don't save this column to compare with the outcome.

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