Democrat Sluggers Are Benched

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

ANYONE wondering why the Democrats are unable to take over the White House should look at the party's heaviest hitters - Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy, and Jesse Jackson. All three are on the bench for one reason or another. Governor Cuomo of New York remains the reluctant tiger. He recently made a trip west, stirring audiences and evoking memories of his blockbuster appearance at the 1984 Democratic national convention.

After returning to New York, however, the governor was scheduled to meet with a breakfast group in Washington - but decided to decline. Doubtless other business pressed in on him. But the interpretation in the Washington press was that Cuomo merely decided he shouldn't feed speculation that he was beginning a try for the 1992 presidential nomination.

Why is this gifted orator continually edging up to a presidential run and then backing off? Mr. Cuomo used to modestly say that he wasn't yet prepared to be president. He's dropped that explanation.

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Ron Brown, the Democrats' national chairman, told reporters expecting to have breakfast with Cuomo that it was ``much too early'' for the governor to give the impression that he was gearing up for a presidential bid. Mr. Brown said that should Cuomo do so, reporters would quickly start looking for some dirt on him.

In any event, democratic leaders have no confidence that the charismatic Cuomo can be counted on to run. They are baffled by him. They know he could give the Democrats what they need to win - a candidate who could electrify the constituency. But they also know they are dealing with a man who has continually said - ``Thanks, but no thanks.''

Then there's Sen. Kennedy (D) Massachusetts - a heavy hitter with a liability. I've recently returned from Cape Cod where there are reminders of Chappaquiddick in all the book stores.

I also drove by the Hyannisport Kennedy enclave and once again marveled at how this family of great wealth could have such a strong appeal to the underprivileged, particularly the blacks.

The press breakfast with Brown was almost over when someone asked if he thought Mr. Kennedy might try again for the presidency in 1992. Brown said he had heard nothing along that line. What was interesting, however, was the lateness of the question. It was almost an afterthought. Have the press and public finally decided that Kennedy is no longer a presidential possibility?

Finally there's the Rev. Jesse Jackson - star of the 1988 national convention whose presence on the platform so overshadowed Michael Dukakis and did much to shape the emerging public view that the Massachusetts governor was small and inconsequential. Mr. Jackson ``knocked 'em dead'' in Atlanta just as Cuomo ``laid 'em in the aisles'' in San Francisco four years earlier.

Jackson now is flirting with a try at becoming mayor of Washington. Chairman Brown told us that he believes Jackson will run. While the current mayor, Marion Barry, hasn't yet shown signs of stepping out of the way, he is in deep trouble. Several times Mr. Barry has been seen in bad company. He certainly sets no fine example for the youth of the District; recently he responded to a jeering crowd with an obscene gesture.

Polls show that Jackson would have little difficulty winning. But such a victory would likely eliminate Jackson from the presidential race in 1992. Brown says that Jackson would not have enough time after becoming mayor to mount a presidential campaign. Further, the public would expect Jackson to spend some time diligently dealing with the immense problems - particularly drugs and crime - he would face in the District of Columbia.

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