Washington — It's the Alphonse and Gaston act of 1988. ``After you, Governor Robb.''
``No, after you, Senator Nunn.''
For months, former Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia and United States Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia have been deferring like Southern gentlemen to each other's 1988 White House ambitions. Now the picture is clearing.
Senator Nunn is taking a serious look at his 1988 chances. He is expected to make a decision soon. Governor Robb appears to have stepped aside. (Field wide open, Page 7)
They have the same goal: to make sure the South, with its conservative politics and its traditional values, isn't left out again by the Democratic Party in a presidential race. That's what happened in 1984, they feel, and the result was a crushing defeat.
In an interview at his Fairfax, Va., law office, Robb emphasized that the huge Southern regional primary on March 8, 1988, should greatly broaden the base of Democratic politics and increase Dixie's power.
The Southern primary will reduce the importance of the two early states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and force candidates to seek a wider range of voters, Robb says. This is crucial, he says, because without a broad-based appeal that includes the South, Democrats probably cannot win back the White House in 1988.
``In my judgment,'' Robb says, ``the South does not have to have a representative, at least in terms of birthplace, on the ticket. But the ticket has to appeal to the South. It cannot be unacceptable to the South.''
Robb says he greatly admires several potential Democratic candidates, including US Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. But his first choice for 1988 is Mr. Nunn, whose views closely parallel his own. Mr. Robb says of the senator:
``I don't think there is any more respected elected official in either party on matters relating to the nation's defense.''
Robb says that, overnight, Nunn could change public perceptions about Democrats. ``Nunn gives the Democratic Party credibility in areas [defense and foreign policy] which the party lacks nationally. [Democrats would] gain almost instant credibility by identifying with a basic philosophy and approach and value system.''
``To a certain extent, that's what the success of Ronald Reagan is all about,'' he adds. ``He articulates a value system. People may not agree with every element of it. But they know that it sustains him. And in much the same way, a value system sustains Sam Nunn.''
Robb concedes that there are a couple of serious stumbling blocks in Nunn's way, but he thinks that neither of them is insurmountable. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle lies in the Senate. Just this month, Nunn took over a job that has been a lifetime ambition: chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It will take months for Nunn to reshape the committee, and that will leave him little time for a presidential campaign.
Robb and other insiders think that problem can be overcome, however. They suggest that Nunn could enter the presidential fray very late - perhaps late this year or early in 1988. He could skip the Iowa caucuses (which take months of legwork and extensive organizing) and begin with the New Hampshire primary.
That should be early enough for Nunn, who could follow New Hampshire with a strong showing in his native South, Robb says. He would then have enough delegates, and enough momentum, to go after the remaining delegates in other regions.
Another factor: Nunn cannot match the oratorical skills of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York or Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, two likely challengers. The Georgia senator's style is low key, quiet, thoughtful. But Nunn's advisers say they think that may not be a handicap, either. They believe the voters in 1988 will be looking for substance, not glitter. A well-informed, competent leader will have great voter appeal next year, they say.
What are the key issues for men like Robb and Nunn, and for the South? Robb and his fellow Southerners point to several areas. Most important, they say, Democrats must again be seen as the party of change, not the party of the status quo. Democrats must be ready to move the country in new directions. The nation will be ready in 1988 to look beyond the Reagan years.
Beyond that, Democrats must be seen as a party of strength and resolve, with ``a willingness to use that strength if necessary to defend our basic values and freedoms,'' Robb says.
The Democrats must also be seen, say Robb and others, as a party of economic growth and opportunity, with particular emphasis at this time on international trade. To meet the challenge of foreign competition, Democrats must support more investments in research and education, as well as trade measures that ensure fair access to foreign markets.
Fiscal responsibility must also be high on Democratic priorities. Robb explains: ``I know there are some that say, `You talk about fiscal responsibility, and you mean either cutting spending or raising taxes, and that's the formula that doesn't work. ... ``I think it does work. I think people are willing to respond to a call for some sense of shared sacrifice.''
Along with a willingness to raise taxes, Democrats must look at the spending side, including defense and entitlements programs. Robb suggests: ``I'm willing to suggest ... the functional equivalent of a means test for basic entitlement programs.'' Robb-Nunn Democrats also support a revitalized workplace, where employees have a greater stake in the future of their companies and where performance and pay are closely linked.
Will this kind of politics sell in 1988?
Robb thinks it will, as long as the Democratic nominee can avoid the kind of ``special interests'' label that was attached to Walter Mondale in 1984.
The Southern primary will force candidates to broaden their appeal, Robb reasons, and that will make support from special interests much less important.