Voters tilt to stable, familiar

Twelve states and D.C. hold primaries Tuesday, with 'outsider' appeal on the wane.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As polls open Tuesday morning for the biggest primary day of the 2002 election, one voter message may be this: High-profile candidates who come across as edgy or iconoclastic may not do as well as expected.

The struggles of famous, yet polarizing, politicians such as Sen. Bob Smith (R) of New Hampshire – who briefly quit the GOP to launch an independent bid for president in 1999 – in part reflect local circumstance.

They might also be the result of the unusually subdued atmosphere for this campaign, with most candidates halting all advertising and limiting campaign activities for a period surrounding Sept. 11.

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But perhaps they are, too, a sign of voters' desire for uncontroversial leaders at a time of national uncertainty.

Certainly, analysts agree, candidates who have made controversial statements about Sept. 11 have fared poorly: Former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo dropped out of the New York governor's race last week, in part because his campaign never recovered from his description of Gov. George Pataki as "holding the coat" of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"Those who have been perceived as taking potshots or playing around with 9/11 in some way – or of potentially embarrassing their constituents – have had a difficult time," says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at Washington's Brookings Institution.

Last month, primary voters in Georgia ousted Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D), who had ignited controversy over her charge that President Bush had prior knowledge of the terrorist attacks. They also rejected Rep. Bob Barr (R), a former Clinton impeachment manager known for his flamethrowing style.

Sept. 10's round of primary contests represents the biggest political day of the 2002 election cycle prior to this November's vote itself. Voters in 12 states and the District of Columbia will choose nominees in a number of crucial contests, from the governorships of several big states to Senate and House seats that could ultimately determine which party controls Congress.

Today's elections will determine the political futures not only of Senator Smith but also of former Attorney General Janet Reno, another polarizing figure waging a somewhat quirky campaign for governor of Florida. In recent weeks, Ms. Reno has lost her once-commanding lead for the Democratic nomination and is now locked in a tight battle with Tampa attorney Bill McBride.

Old lure of 'outsider' status

Both Reno and Smith have run without support of their state parties, amid doubts about their chances in November.

Both also, along with the now-exited Mr. Cuomo, have tried to cast themselves as outsiders.

Analysts note that this strategy has been effective historically for candidates such as Smith, particularly in states as independent-minded as New Hampshire. But ever since Smith denounced the GOP on the Senate floor, his iconoclasm has been wearing a little thin – even in the Granite State. "That speech was a slap in the face to rank-and-file Republicans," says Andrew Smith, polling director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

New Hampshire Republicans now believe Mr. Sununu would have a better chance of beating the likely Democratic nominee, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, in November, according to current polls.

Hefting political baggage

Likewise, Florida Democrats have worried all along that Reno's political baggage from her years in the Clinton administration – with the Waco and Elian Gonzalez crises – would make it impossible for her to beat Gov. Jeb Bush. And though Reno's offbeat campaign tactics have drawn plenty of free media coverage, she has far less cash on hand than her opponent, Mr. McBride.

Despite her connection to the Clinton administration, she's hardly a Democratic insider: Her relationship with the Clintons has been famously rocky ever since she let the special prosecutor expand the Whitewater investigation to cover the Monica Lewinsky scandal. McBride, in fact, may have the more valuable Clinton ties: Not only is he a former Democratic fundraiser, but his own chief fundraiser is the father-in-law of Terry McAuliffe, Clinton's pick to head the Democratic National Committee.

"He's got a much better network than [Reno] does," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Significantly, Reno isn't the only ex-Clinton official running who lacks the support of her former boss.

Although both Clintons officially stayed neutral in the New York governor's race, observers took note when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton marched in a parade with state comptroller, Carl McCall, Cuomo's Democratic opponent – just one day before Cuomo dropped out.

Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich – who had a public falling-out with the Clintons after criticizing the former president in his book – is lagging behind in his bid for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts governor.

And while President Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, is expected to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in North Carolina today – where he'll then likely face off against Elizabeth Dole – Mr. Bowles has also sought to downplay his Clinton connections.

States with primaries today

• Arizona

• Connecticut

• Florida

• Georgia

• Maryland

• Minnesota

• New Hampshire

• New York

• North Carolina

• Rhode Island

• Vermont

• Wisconsin

• District of Columbia

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