MERRIFIELD, N.H. — THE buzzword along the Democratic campaign trail this year is "electability."
After years in the political wilderness, Democrats desperately want to recapture the White House in 1992. Many liberal party activists are putting aside their pet causes in hopes of achieving their prime goal - defeating George Bush.
As a leading New Hampshire Democrat puts it: "We've been demanding that Democratic candidates be perfect 10s, and then ending up with Republicans who lie to get elected." This emphasis on winning isn't found just in New Hampshire, either. Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says: "It's very true nationally, too. The party has been out in the cold a very long time, and they are tired of it."
Mr. Hess says some of the ideologues on issues like gay rights, feminism, nuclear disarmament, and capital punishment are being silenced by hard times. "People are hurting," he observes. "This is not the time to talk about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."
Until two weeks ago, the electability test clearly favored Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Despite his relatively late entry into the race, he galloped quickly to the top of the public opinion polls in New Hampshire.
Governor Clinton, a Southerner with middle-of-the-road social and economic views that would be popular on Main Street, USA, seemed ideal to battle Mr. Bush. His appeal reached south, west, and even into the Northeast. Clinton was so popular until recently in New Hampshire that polls showed him handily defeating not only his Democratic rivals, but also President Bush.
Laurence Radway, a former Democratic state chairman in New Hampshire, says Clinton early proved himself adept at attracting support from all sectors of the party. "He commands confidence in people, unites people who are different," he says.
Dr. Radway notes that there are six former Democratic state chairmen in New Hampshire who are in a position to back a candidate in the primary. They represent all ideological views. And they all support Clinton, he says.
Unfortunately, Clinton's "halo effect," as political scientist David Moore calls it, has been tarnished during the past two weeks.
Clinton first faced charges in the tabloid press that he had a 12-year extramarital affair with a former TV reporter and nightclub singer, Gennifer Flowers.
Then he was accused of improperly using a deferment to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war. Now in the closing days of the race, there are reports that he took 161 free trips during the past four years courtesy of corporate and other private benefactors.
The governor knows he must act decisively. In recent days, his standing in the polls has slipped steadily, and in some surveys he is now second, behind former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Ironically, the "electability" factor that pushed Clinton up so swiftly now threatens his chances. Democrats worry that the GOP might make mince meat of Clinton in the fall campaign.
The governor charges that he is the victim of a "Republican attack machine" out to smear him - an accusation that GOP officials deny. Tonight and tomorrow night, Clinton plans to go on New Hampshire television to answer questions from voters, and perhaps get his campaign back on track.
But many New Hampshire voters, using electability as a gauge, now clearly are casting about for a new front-runner. Mr. Tsongas is one possibility, but as one Democrat says disconsolately: "There's no way Tsongas could beat Bush."
Nor does there seem to be great enthusiasm for the other principal Democrats in this race: Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, or former Gov. Jerry Brown of California. That's one reason there now seems to be a tiny boomlet here for Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. More than 100 volunteers are working night and day across New Hampshire to encourage a write-in effort for Governor Cuomo. So far, he hasn't told them to stop.