Washington — You won't even find the word in the dictionary, but ``electability'' is the hot topic in the Democratic race for president. Having lost four of the last five presidential elections, the Democratic Party is flooded with pragmatism, observers say. The party's No. 1 criterion when examining a candidate is, ``Can he win?''
``The candidates are trying to make the argument that win-ability in November is the key factor,'' says Peter Fenn, president of Fenn & King Communications, a firm specializing in media consulting. ``The question now is not the next week's primary, but November.''
``The Democrats tend to look longer and harder at the whole electability issue [this year] because they want to win in November,'' agrees Democratic consultant William Sweeney. (Illinois primary coverage tomorrow.)
For the Democrats, ``positioning'' may be the key to success. In a race where the issue distinctions between Democratic candidates must be measured in microns rather meters, a candidate's image as a ``national candidate'' will count for a lot.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr., wants voters to think that Gov. Michael Dukakis is too liberal, and that Rep. Richard Gephardt's trade policy is too dangerous. Governor Dukakis, on the other hand, dismisses Senator Gore as a ``regional'' candidate not worthy of serious votes. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, has positioned himself above the fray, serving as a minister of the political peace.
Gore brought up the electability issue as one way to discount the early primary victories of Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Dukakis. At virtually every campaign stop he reminds voters of the party's many recent failures in seeking the White House.
``I offer an alternative,'' Gore said recently while campaigning in Illinois. ``Mike Dukakis offers the politics of the past - the same approach we used in 1972 and 1984 when we lost 49 out of 50 states. I offer the politics of the future.''
No other candidate, Gore argues, will be as successful in attracting Southern white males, who have moved to the Republican camp in recent presidential elections, back to the Democratic fold.
``The issue as to who can attract the voters who left us in 1984 or in 1980 is really very central,'' Mr. Sweeney says.
Mr. Fenn calls Gore's emphasis on his strong Southern base ``ZIP-code politics.'' ``Where you might sit on Jan. 20, 1989, depends upon what ZIP code you're from,'' says Fenn, if you accept Gore's strategy.
Dukakis counters Gore's pointed attacks, using his impressive, though spotty, successes in Super Tuesday as proof of his broad appeal. The Massachusetts governor needs to show that, as a New Englander from the only state to vote for Jimmy Carter in 1980, he can attract moderates and is more than a regional favorite himself.
``I don't know of two states in this country that are going to be more important to the Democratic cause than Florida and Texas,'' Dukakis said last week while campaigning in Illinois. ``Both happen to be in the South, a long way from where I live. I not only won [them] decisively, but I won in north Florida as well as south Florida, in rural as well as urban [areas].''
``I won west Texas and north Texas and east Texas,'' Dukakis continued, ``the oil fields ... and the Rio Grande Valley. I won votes among liberals, conservatives, [and] moderates. Somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the people who said they voted for Ronald Reagan last time voted for [me].''
``I think that says what has to be said about electability,'' he concluded.
While the other candidates argue among themselves, Mr. Jackson tries to use their political ugliness to contrast his message of a candidacy built on hope.
``Jackson has escaped any criticism because nobody wants to touch him,'' Fenn says. ``They are all after each other. He's like the guy in the alley watching everybody beat up on each other, coming out with black eyes and scars, and he says, `Come on, fellas, don't fight.' It's great for him because he still looks terrific.''
For many analysts, the lack of issues in the campaign means the margin of victory will come from good organization, plenty of money, and political adroitness.
The Democratic nominee won't be decided on any one issue, they say, but rather, on which candidate can respond the quickest to events, can afford the most media coverage, and has the best staff and volunteer support. And can come across as ``electable.''