Hart tactic backfired in Chicago

Toying with Chicago politics is dangerous business. This is the city where all presidential candidates were barred from marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade. This is the city whose best-known columnist urged voters to lie to exit pollsters. And this is the city where the Gary Hart campaign, which has been helped by television, ran a series of dangerous television ads.

The ads, which linked Walter Mondale with the head of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, backfired, analysts say.

The advertisements did little to attract black voters, who by and large oppose Mr. Vrdolyak, and only helped to align Senator Hart more closely with the city's black mayor, Harold Washington, who is not particularly popular with the suburban whites who were supposed to give Hart the edge. In fact, says Don Rose, a local political analyst, they helped Hart lose in Illinois.

''The Hart ads . . . were unwise,'' says Richard Day, head of his own public opinion research company. Hart apparently realized that fact, because he had them pulled off the air.

But for many Illinois voters, Tuesday's primary was only coincidentally a win for Democratic presidential hopeful Walter Mondale. In many areas, the heavy turnout was brought out by local races, political pundits say.

In Champaign, for example, the turnout was more than double that of the 1980 Democratic primary. The interest was fueled by a four-way contest for a seat in the US House, says James Nowlan, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.

And in Chicago, the most important race was not for president, but for ward committeemen, analysts say.

Take a man named Jim, for example. Standing just outside a Chicago polling place, he listed his preferences. He liked Gary Hart. He had a hard time remembering who he picked for US senator. But one thing was certain: Daniel P. O'Brien was his pick for committeeman of the 43rd Ward. ''He lives in the area, '' Jim confided.

This particular race was a crucial swing ward in the ongoing bruising battle between Mayor Washington, the city's first black mayor, and Mr. Vrdolyak. Typically, it is seen as a battle between a mayor who repeatedly stresses reform and the county Democratic machine, which Vrdolyak heads. With Tuesday's primary, analysts say, the mayor picked up strength but not enough to topple Vrdolyak.

Here in the 43rd Ward, an independent beat out both the Vrydolyak- and Washington-backed candidates. But pundits are calling it a win for the mayor, because the independent, Ann Stepan, is regarded as anti-Vrdolyak.

But besides the 43rd, Washington picked up only two other swing wards, Mr. Rose says, while machine-backed candidates won in others, partly because too many Washington supporters split the black and independent votes. The mayor's only option now is to negotiate with independents in order to dump Vrdolyak, Rose adds.

One statewide race that did get a lot of attention was for the US Senate.

On the Republican side, the moderate incumbent, Charles Percy, easily won renomination over conservative Tom Corcoran, a US representative who seemed to turn off voters with a negatively based campaign.

The Democratic nomination, meanwhile, was hotly contested.

US Rep. Paul Simon won with 36 percent of the vote, besting his three challengers, who each received just over 20 percent. The result sets the stage for what is expected to be a very close race in November - and a crucial one, since Democrats are hoping to wrest control of the Senate from the Republican majority.

''It should be a real squeaker,'' Mr. Day says.

Besides the wins and losses, the Illinois races point out more enduring trends, Mr. Nowlan says.

Contrary to what some observers have been saying, ''this election showed that primary elections can be well attended,'' he says, if there are interesting races.

In the 43rd Ward, for example, turnout was about twice as high as a normal primary, according to an election judge.

Television and radio played a large part, too, he says. Not only was Hart hurt by his TV ads, but Alex Seith, a wealthy attorney with virtually no political base, was able to put up a big fight against Mr. Simon in the Senate race by spending heavily on broadcast advertising.

And two traditional elements in the election process - organized labor and the party organization - showed they still wield power, Nowlan says.

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