Will Kennedy Ties Trip Brown As He Reaches For Democratic Helm? LEADERSHIP TEST

RONALD H. BROWN strides onto the national political stage this week carrying three big suitcases. One is labeled ``Ted Kennedy''; another, ``Jesse Jackson''; and a third, ``AFL-CIO.'' On Friday Mr. Brown, a Washington lawyer, is expected to win the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. His task: to stop the defection of Southern and Northern whites from the party, and to put a Democrat back in the Oval Office.

But Brown, who in 1980 fought to deny Jimmy Carter a second term in the White House, has his work cut out.

His most recent political job - key operative for the Rev. Mr. Jackson at the 1988 Democratic National Convention - won't endear him to party conservatives.

Nor will his closest political allies, Jackson, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and the AFL-CIO. Says one leading Southern Democratic politician: ``Kennedy's name is absolutely poison down here.''

Brown pledges to be strictly neutral, however, and vows that he's just the person to pull together the party's old, winning North-South coalition.

Analysts are sharply divided on the wisdom of Brown's election, which is expected at a meeting of the 404-member Democratic National Committee.

``I think Ron Brown is a class act,'' says Brookings Institution political expert Stephen Hess. ``This is a very good move. If anyone can neutralize the Jesse Jackson factor ... it is Brown.''

But Earl Black, a specialist in Southern politics at the University of South Carolina, says Brown presents the party with ``a very delicate situation.''

Dr. Black says a major problem for Democrats is the defection of Southerners. In 1980, Democrats dominated the region, where they held a 52 to 26 percent lead over Republicans in party loyalty. Today that margin has shrunk to 37 percent Democrats, 35 percent Republicans.

``This is a sea change,'' Black says. ``While Brown's personal qualifications may be superb, his choice could be a decision that makes it harder to retain the white support the party needs.''

While some critics worry about Brown's connections to Kennedy and big labor, others fret about his ties to Jackson. The New York Post, in an editorial, wrote:

``By naming a key Jesse Jackson aide to lead the party, the Democrats are sending the nation an unmistakable signal as to where the party stands and where it is headed. ... Jesse Jackson is the voice of the hard left in American political life.''

Just about everyone expects Jackson to run again in 1992. And for the first time, a number of experts say he now has a serious chance to win the Democratic nomination for either president or vice-president.

Mr. Hess compares Jackson's fiery political career to a three-stage rocket. Stage 1 blasted off in 1984: He ran a campaign viewed primarily as symbolic. Stage 2 fired in 1988: He had significant influence on the race. Stage 3 comes in 1992: With no one else in sight, he has to be considered a candidate with winning potential.

A leading North Carolina Democrat, who refused to let his name be used, says that with Brown's Kennedy-labor connections, the outlook for the party ``isn't good.'' The Democrat says it doesn't worry Southerners that Brown is black. He explains:

``The key thing is Kennedy and labor. The word is out that Kennedy put screws on labor to back Brown.''

The Democratic official says the national party must understand why it continues to lose the White House. He continues:

``The American people love guns and bombs, and if Democrats try to talk about reducing arms, we're pictured as pacifists. And if we talk about the poor, then Southerners say we're talking about handouts.''

Brown told a recent breakfast meeting of reporters that he understands that viewpoint. He contends that the party has failed to address major policy concerns of voters, but that now it must.

Democrats ``need to overcome the unfair stigma that [they] are weak on national defense, and soft on crime,'' Brown says. ``I think both those charges are unfair. I think we haven't done enough to counter them.''

He explains: ``We have to formulate a message that recognizes the beating that we are taking on those issues. ... I don't mean that we have to buy into every weapons system that the Pentagon proposes.''

On crime: ``It doesn't make any sense for our party to get battered on the crime issue. It is our constituents, that is, the low- and moderate-income people, who are most affected by crime.''

Can Brown, who calls himself a pragmatist, pull it off?

John Chubb, another Brookings political scholar, has doubts. Brown's selection sends signals that ``unfortunately are not going to be in the Democrats' best interests,'' Mr. Chubb says.

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