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The great Bush-Dole duel (and Democrats, too)

By JOSEPH C. HARSCH / January 28, 1988



INSOFAR as we may remember this pre-Iowa phase of the 1988 American presidential campaign, we will probably think of it largely in terms of the great Bush-Dole duel. This has been the main newsmaker of this first chapter. In it Sen. Robert Dole portrayed himself as a poor boy running against the pampered scion of the Eastern aristocracy. Vice-President George Bush responded by noting that Senator Dole may have been born poor but became noticeably rich after reaching Washington. Impropriety is implied.

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Not generally noted is that by hammering away at each other the senator from Kansas and the vice-president from Connecticut by way of Texas have jointly and successfully kept all other Republicans out of the spotlight. There have been others - primarily Jack Kemp of upstate New York and evangelical preacher Pat Robertson of Virginia - striving to get some attention, but with remarkable lack of success.

And if you try hard you may be able to remember the names of the two others who are officially running for the GOP nomination. If you have trouble coming up with those other names - Alexander Haig and Pierre du Pont and - your difficulty is a tribute to the Dole-Bush propaganda machines. They have done their best to smother public notice of the others.

Of course ultimately their main targets will be each other, but that has been secondary in the pre-Iowa phase. The two have concentrated on making it look and sound like a two-man race.

When they do get to the convention floor next summer, much is going to depend on what the other Republicans think about the two leading Republicans. Messrs. Kemp, Robertson, duPont, and Haig will all arrive, presumably, with their own little flocks of delegates. Robertson's could be large. He has devoted evangelicals working for him in all states. Some think he might garner as many as four or five hundred delegates. Jack Kemp might gather in two or three hundred.

That means that Robertson or Kemp might be able to swing the final result between Mr. Bush and Mr. Dole. It is said that Bush was unfortunate in his manner of rejecting an overture from the Robertson camp and that Robertson would therefore swing his delegates to anyone but Bush. That probably means that at or near the end of the Republican selection process the Robertson delegates will be going to Dole.

As for the Democrats: Six months or so ago it was widely being assumed that they would in the end be forced to draft either Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York or Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, on the assumption that none in the current crop of declared candidates could possibly gain national recognition and the appearance of presidential stature. We hear less of that talk these days - in fact talk of a Nunn or Cuomo draft has virtually disappeared from the commentaries.

This is presumably because three of the seven Democrats we have been watching on the various televised debates seem to have gained in public recognition - Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. Senator Gore and Governor Dukakis are the best funded of the seven. Both will have unspent balances when the Iowa and New Hampshire voting is finished. Governor Babbitt has been innovative in ideas and manners. The four others are in an unfavorable financial condition. They must do well now to be in a position to raise more funds. Gore and Dukakis are not dependent on performance at this stage. They could bomb in Iowa and be smothered in New Hampshire and still come on strong in later tests. Babbitt runs a low-cost campaign and could survive.

Dukakis will presumably do well in New Hampshire, but he ends up still being the governor of a Northeastern big-city state that normally votes Democratic no matter who the candidate at the top of the ticket. To win nationally the Democrats must regain their lost positions in the Old South and West.

Six months ago a plausible Democratic ticket would have been Mr. Nunn and Dukakis. Today Gore is the one declared Democratic candidate who might run well in the Old South. If the Democrats were to twin him with Babbitt of Arizona - Old South and new West - they would have an interesting combination.