Candidates and the times

TOO much is made of personality in politics, too little of the underlying currents that produce fundamental, long-range change. In one sense, politics is the business of getting candidates elected or policies adopted; in another, it is helping a society adjust to emerging circumstances and forces. Let's look at this in two cases: contra aid, and the winnowing process in the presidential lineup.

The upward spike in support for United States aid to the rebels in Nicaragua that followed Oliver North's Iran-contra testimony has fallen flat. This should not be surprising.

American attitudes toward Nicaragua are complex. They are a mix of resentment toward Soviet-Cuban Marxist intrusion, a post-Vietnam syndrome distrust of American leadership, a fear of impulsive commitment of US troops, fear of destabilization of the entire region, a preference for negotiation and diplomacy over force, impatience with a Washington that tolerates troublemakers near its southern border, dismay at a Washington that feels it must intercede in a social revolution it does not like. And so forth.

To think that a lieutenant colonel's television performance would rework such ambivalent views into a one-dimensional pattern, like steel filings aligned by a magnet, is to misperceive the richness and diversity of public attitudes. The same goes for President Reagan's effort last week to bolster the contras by meeting with their leaders in Los Angeles.

In the presidential contest, much is being made of Sen. Sam Nunn's decision to pass up 1988. The Georgian was counted on by some Democrats who think a Southerner must be on the ticket to win. Ironically, some say Senator Nunn isn't running because, as a conservative, he could not win a nomination fight that is usually decided by activist liberals outside the South; another Democratic heavyweight, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, is thought to be not running partly because as a liberal he could not win in the South. It may be better to take these men at their word: After considering their family, current public responsibilities, and the thrill and grind of running for the Oval Office, they are sticking with what they have.

The Southern primaries may or may not be all that important in 1988: The numerous March 8 events could diffuse rather than focus candidate standings.

If the Democrats' fortunes ride on finding a personality who can convincingly whistle ``Dixie,'' they are in trouble. As discussed by Peter D. Hart and Geoffrey Garin in the column opposite, the Democrats need to forge party-wide themes that touch on nationwide political yearnings, as did the Republicans in 1980 and 1984.

The Democrats do have regional problems on issues like the contras. Whereas Democrats nationally tend to oppose contra aid, Democrats from Dixie - constituents and politicians - strongly favor it. Pro-contra Sam Nunn would have been a welcome addition to the presidential lineup, broadening the Democratic spectrum.

Similarly the exit of his former Senate colleague Paul Laxalt from the GOP lineup deprives that party of diversity.

Sheer personal ambition is no qualification for high office. Neither is a regional accent or telegenic profile.

The times must find their candidate, as much as the candidate his time.

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