Democrats `Frozen' By Gulf Crisis

THE Gulf crisis might have caused potential presidential candidates to spring into action. Instead, it's had the effect of a freeze. This time four years ago, Dick Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt were already out in Iowa, bidding for votes in a primary that was two years away. And other Democrats were letting it be known that their intentions to run were serious.

Other than Jesse Jackson, a perpetual candidate, the likely aspirants remain on the sidelines, waiting for the president to shape either a highly unpopular Gulf policy or one that fails.

They, of course, want the US to succeed. But they know that the political realities dictate that Bush must look bad in this Mideast endeavor if they are going to be able to stake out clear positions as challengers.

At this point, the outcome of the Gulf confrontation is too blurry for a ``safe'' challenge. Mario Cuomo made the mistake of venturing out into the fog and, in the process, may have damaged his prospects irreparably.

Governor Cuomo gave a talk in which he suggested that a way out of the standoff in the Gulf was to let Saddam Hussein keep a toehold in Kuwait, including a water outlet. This idea met with public disdain; few Americans are ready for such concessions.

Cuomo has since said his remarks were taken out of context, that he had only been theorizing. But if he decides to ``go'' this time around (and this is not at all certain), the New York governor may find it difficult to run away from charges by opponents that he would have been ``soft'' on Saddam.

There are, of course, issues other than the ``war issue.'' Indeed, Democrats seemed to make some headway in the recent elections by picturing the president as weak and wavering in his efforts to deal with the budget deficit. Mr. Bush's turnaround on taxes certainly gave Democrats cause for glee.

But in recent weeks the Gulf confrontation has become a preoccupation of the American public. Nothing else is very important except how the troops are doing and how Mr. Bush is handling that ticklish situation.

It was Bush's apparent intention to take the offensive, after a big troop buildup, that emboldened Cuomo to talk, if only tentatively, of a compromise. He sensed (and he was correct) that the public would increasingly resist any action by the US that would lead to the loss of American lives.

At the same time, Congress, reading that same public mood, expressed alarm over a policy that seemed headed for war.

Whereupon Mr. Bush, who all along has been alert to public attitudes - knowing what happens to presidents who, like Lyndon Johnson, ignore what the people are thinking - moved quickly to try to show he was doing everything possible to avoid a real war.

Then in a move that took the air out of the criticism from the dovish side, the president made his offer to have face-to-face diplomatic exchanges with Baghdad. Saddam Hussein then responded by announcing he would release the hostages.

At this point, Bush has once again captured the war issue. Except for those who think the US shouldn't be in the Gulf at all, most Americans again think Bush is making the right moves.

And, again, Cuomo finds that he spoke out - or misspoke out, or whatever he did - quite a bit early.

The president has disarmed his Democratic critics in Congress. Sure, the debate in that body over how Mr. Bush is conducting himself in the Mideast operation has begun and will continue. But what started out as a ``Great Debate'' has lost some of its initial steam.

All this doesn't mean that politicians like Gephardt, Bentsen, Nunn, Cuomo, and Gore aren't still poised to jump into the '92 campaign. They probably are. And Nunn, in particular, has helped himself a lot in recent hearings on the Gulf crisis. He's looking quite presidential.

But only if the president now begins to show he is on the ``wrong side'' of the war issue, in the eyes of a big slice of the American public, will Democrats leap eagerly and early into this fray.

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