Democrats Ready Their Bids

As Labor Day nears, four potential challengers consider entering the fray against Bush. WHITE HOUSE CHASE

LABOR Day looms as D-Day for Democrats.Four Democratic prospects - Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa - will decide by early September whether to run for the White House in 1992. Their decisions will carry serious political risks. Election '92 looks doubly daunting for Democrats, who were trounced in the last three races, and who now must duel with a Republican president who has set popularity records. Mr. Bush, fortified by his Desert Storm victory and the end of the cold war, looms like a battle-hardened Goliath over the political landscape. His reelection campaign may be nothing more than a lavish coronation. Better-known Democrats who might have challenged Bush, like House majority leader Richard Gephardt, Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, have either run for cover or expressed disinterest. Yet Democrats remain upbeat. They insist Bush isn't as tough as he looks because of his foreign victories. "Foreign policy is George Bush's steroids," scoffs Democratic consultant Keith Frederick. "The steroids make Bush look strong, but they mask the weakness underneath."

The domestic front Mr. Frederick notes that "two-thirds of America thinks this country is going in the wrong direction." The economy is anemic. Jobs are moving to Japan and Mexico. Crime is getting worse. Many banks are broke. There's talk of a "double-dip recession." Frederick insists: With 15 months remaining until Election Day, Bush's halo will eventually begin to fade. But in San Francisco, pollster Mark DiCamillo, vice president of Field Research, is less encouraging for Democrats. Voters aren't paying much attention to the 1992 campaign, Mr. DiCamillo says. They are so satisfied with Bush that - so far, at least - they haven't bothered to search out alternatives. "We compared Bush's ratings in California, and he ... has the highest job ratings here since [John F.] Kennedy, which is pretty remarkable," he says. Even so, the Democratic presidential nomination remains a valuable prize. So analysts expect a real foot-race to begin within the next few weeks. One of those in the running may be Senator Gore. Down at a lake near Carthage, Tenn., Gore is relaxing with his family during the August congressional recess, and talking politics. The senator has been through this once before, in 1988, so he knows the heavy cost to his family and himself in making another bid. Over in Richmond, Va., Governor Wilder is mulling campaign themes that might work against Bush. At a meeting on Sunday, according to news reports, Wilder gathered a half-dozen top political aides and discussed whether Bush might be vulnerable on civil rights, especially if the president were attacked by Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor. Out in Iowa, favorite son Harkin would be the odds-on favorite to win the state's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses next February. Senator Harkin, a fiery campaigner, is a no-apologies liberal with close ties to organized labor. Down in Little Rock, Ark., Governor Clinton, who has flirted with presidential politics before, must decide whether a middle-of-the-road politician like himself has a chance in the Democratic primary process. Because of primary voting patterns, Democrats usually pick liberals, like George McGovern and Walter Mondale. Clinton and Harkin, the moderate and the liberal, would pit sharply clashing ideas against one another. The outcome of that struggle could help rudderless Democrats sort through issues like defense policy, health care, international competitiveness, and education which have riven the party in the past, analysts say. Claibourne Darden Jr., a pollster based in Atlanta, is especially intrigued by the benefits of a Clinton candidacy for the Democrats. "He's a particularly bright spot," says Mr. Darden, who is known for his accurate predictions of Southern voting trends. But Darden doubts that Democratic activists, dominated by a coalition of labor unionists, liberals, and feminists, would allow Clinton's nomination. "I don't think the core of the party is going to let him raise his head," Darden says, even though Clinton might bring back many Southern white voters who have left the Democrats since 1980.

The man from Virginia Frederick says that Wilder is the most interesting of the potential candidates. Currently, Wilder sounds as if he's ready to run, although he worries that the recession would make that difficult because it would force him to spend more time working on Virginia's problems. Even so, Wilder could be formidable, Frederick says. m a fan of his message and his approach to governing," Frederick says. "He has taken the same situation of other governors - a huge deficit - and managed to balance the state budget and do so without raising state taxes. "Also, Wilder is a story wherever he goes, and he has the best potential fund-raising base of all. His race makes him different and a star. He raised a lot of money out of Hollywood and New York City for his governor's race." Frederick also likes Gore. But Darden discounts the Tennessee senator as "plastic" and "stiff a candidate who in 1988 thought he could win the White House if "he bought a bottle of hair spray" and put the right knot in his tie. Whoever the final entries are, however, they will be welcomed with open arms by at least one Democrat, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Mr. Tsongas is the only Democrat officially in the running. For nearly four months, he has looked for someone - Republican or Democrat - to debate the issues with as he crisscrossed Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key states. It's "lonely" out there when you're by yourself in all those Holiday Inns and meeting halls, he complains. It's hard to prove your ideas are good ones when there's no one to argue with. Now, at last, it looks as if Tsongas will be lonely no more.

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