Los Angeles — Democratic Party leaders in California are nibbling at their fingernails. They may be all smiles over a certain win for Gov. Michael Dukakis in next Tuesday's primary, but many party leaders here harbor anxieties over his chances in the fall.
Of the 32 Democratic county chairmen responding to a mail survey conducted by the Monitor (out of 55 recipients), only 13 percent foresaw their party as a clear winner in the November election.
An analysis of the survey responses shows a number of common concerns over:
Party unity and a weak grass-roots organization.
Voter apathy and the soothing effects on the public of positive economic conditions - two factors that may give the GOP an edge in November.
The need to have a conservative Southerner as vice-president to provide balance to the ticket.
``They are optimistic, [but] I don't think they are confident,'' says John Emerson, a senior adviser to the Dukakis campaign here, when told of the survey results. ``We've lost four out of the last five presidential elections, after all.''
In the survey, 95 percent of the county chairmen responding believed that Mr. Dukakis was the favorite in their county and in the state. Six out of 10 of the respondents have already endorsed the Massachusetts governor.
When asked if Jesse Jackson should get the No. 2 spot on the ticket, 78 percent said no. Many of the county leaders cited the Rev. Mr. Jackson's lack of experience and his controversial nature.
David Strand, the Democratic chairman of Marin County, said that Jackson's ``lack of experience in government and left-wing image [make for a] losing ticket.'' Arlie Caudle, Trinity County chairman, explained his opposition by saying, ``There are other criteria than finishing second'' that must be considered.
When asked about the strongly negative feelings about Jackson reflected in the survey, one Democratic activist pointed out that the survey of county chairmen would be skewed. The respondents, he said, are ``white ... middle class ... and establishment,'' and are not ``a reflection of the voter base as a whole.''
When asked whom they supported for the vice-presidential nomination, 1 out of 3 picked conservative Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. The second most popular choice was another Southern senator, Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee.
Although no one thought that New York Gov. Mario Cuomo should fill the No. 2 spot, he was the clear choice (50 percent) to lead the ticket if Dukakis were suddenly out of the picture. Jackson was the second most popular choice, with 22 percent, followed by Illinois Sen. Paul Simon with 9 percent and Senator Gore with 3 percent.
A large number of the Democratic county chairmen thought that the economy was a major issue in their county and statewide. More than 80 percent said the nation's economy was in decline. None seemed to agree with recent positive assessments of economic growth, and only 16 percent would go as far as to say the economy was on an even keel.
But Duane Garrett, a former campaign aide to Walter Mondale, and Bruce Babbitt's national campaign chairman, sees current economic conditions as the biggest disadvantage to Democrats in the fall. ``You'd have to be blind to say [the economy] wasn't improving,'' he says.
When asked what the most important issues are in their county, 38 percent cited the economy and about 13 percent picked the environment. For the second most important issue, drugs topped the list, followed by health issues, the economy, foreign trade, and jobs.
In assessing their arsenal of issues against the GOP in the fall campaign, the respondents picked ethics and the ``sleaze factor'' as the most effective. The Iran-contra affair was the second most popular political bludgeon, closely followed by the budget and trade deficit, and the administration's poor handling of the drug problem and Panamanian strong man Manuel Antonio Noriega.
When asked about the Democratic Party's own weaknesses, these party activists cited disunity, a lack of organization, and a liberal image as the most serious problems.
``Disunity is something Democrats are always worried about,'' says Richard Allen, a former campaign director for Gary Hart. ``The party has ripped itself apart so many times and blown elections that could have been close because of disunity.''
Many respondents complained of the lack of money flowing through the party, putting them at a district disadvantage to the Republicans. ``Strength is only going to come with dollars,'' says Paul Kinney, a California Democratic consultant, ``and at this point Democrats still don't give to the party like Republicans do. We rarely do that ... because we are usually fighting each other.''
Plumas County chairman George Ross complains that ``too few Democrats are for Democrats. [There are] too many special-interest Democrats.'' Mr. Ross says the state party's division into 15 caucuses (such as the gay caucus, the black caucus, and the rural caucus) gives the impression that ``it's less a party than a coalition.''
Only 13 percent of those responding to the survey thought that their party would be the clear winner in California's November election. And 62 percent thought they would win, but only by a slim margin. Only 3 percent believed that the Democrats would lose, and 22 percent said the election is too close to call.
Kurt Peterson in Washington assisted in the research for this story.