WILL 1992 be the "year of the underdog"?Next Sunday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa launches his presidential campaign against George Bush - a move that pits a scrappy, but little-known Midwesterner against the most popular president in modern times. Senator Harkin will be one of perhaps a half-dozen obscure Democratic contenders for the White House in 1992. They will attack Mr. Bush on many fronts, accusing him of failure to make America competitive in international markets, ignoring more than 30 million Americans without health care, underfunding the nation's schools, and exacerbating the country's growing racial tensions. Yet few give Democrats much chance to defeat the globe-trotting president who presided over the burial of Soviet communism and crushed the armies of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. While former Sen. Paul Tsongas, the only Democrat officially in the race so far, insists that his fellow candidates are "a very interesting group of thinkers," Bush enters the 1992 campaign season a prohibitive favorite. Indeed, Republicans' greatest problem may be overconfidence.
All it takes Even so, experts caution that in American presidential politics, much can happen with more than year remaining before Election Day. A single event - a foreign crisis, a scandal, a deepening recession - could reverse the Republican lead. The question for Democrats is: Can their underdog candidates exploit Bush's weaknesses? Expected to attempt that are two Southern governors, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas; two Midwestern senators, Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska; one New Englander, Mr. Tsongas of Massachusetts; and a Westerner, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California. Big-name Democrats, from New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, have ducked the race, though either one could probably enter as late as November and still raise the necessary funds. Experts call the current predicament unprecedented. Pollster Peter Hart observes that "1992 is shaping up differently from every other year I can remember. If you go back over the last 30 to 35 years, we can say there was [always] a front-runner." Even the Democratic candidates make jokes about their lack of name recognition. At a breakfast meeting with Washington reporters, Tsongas recalled that when he ran (successfully) years ago for the United States Senate, the Boston Globe casually wrote him off as "an obscure first-term congressman." In fact, Tsongas observes wryly, at that time he was really "an obscure second-term congressman." With Tsongas and Harkin in the race, the other four are expected to make their final decisions by the end of September. The greatest excitement so far this month came from Senator Kerrey's camp, where his interest in a race caught many Democrats by surprise. Kerrey, a former governor and a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, would be a particular threat to the presidential hopes of Harkin, who has similar liberal and Midwestern roots.
The line-up: Based on conversations with the various camps and with a number of analysts, here is the outlook for the emerging Democratic race: * Bob Kerrey. If anyone in this group of six has a narrow advantage, it might be the Nebraska senator. Kerrey has a war-hero reputation (he was badly wounded in Vietnam) while also sharing in the glitter of Hollywood (he dated actress Debra Winger in the mid-1980s). Kerrey speaks with passion, including his opposition to the Persian Gulf war. He votes with liberals and labor on many issues, but successfully wins office in a conservative, heavily Republican state. If he runs, Kerrey is expected to emphasize economic and health-care issues. * L. Douglas Wilder. The nation's first elected black governor promises to decide whether to run by Sept. 15, but during an interview at his office Sept. 4, he said the presidential picture looks "so interesting, and so intriguing, and so fascinating that ... it makes it more appealing." Mr. Wilder's forte is holding down taxes. While some state employees grumble about salary freezes, Wilder says the time has come to cut waste - in both Richmond, Va., and Washington. * Bill Clinton. With a record of more than 10 years as Arkansas governor, Mr. Clinton is expected to emphasize his experience, his achievements in areas like education, and his moderate policies. Until recently, Clinton headed the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate-conservative movement within the Democratic Party. While some analysts, such as pollster Claibourne Darden Jr. of Atlanta, say that Clinton would make an appealing candidate, his greatest obstacle will be the liberal activists who dominate caucuses and primaries. * Jerry Brown. The former governor sounds as if he is ready to run, though at the moment he has formed only an exploratory group to study a campaign. Mr. Brown, like Wilder, is expected to run an outsider's race that is critical of just about everything inside the Washington Beltway, from political action committees that funnel money to congressmen, to tax breaks for the wealthy. To back up his position, Brown said he would accept no contribution of more than $100. * Tom Harkin. The senator, a darling of liberals and labor, will almost certainly win the Iowa caucuses. But Kerrey could be a problem. Insiders now speculate that Kerrey and Harkin could chop each other up to the benefit of other candidates. * Paul Tsongas. No one is more delighted with all the new potential entries than Tsongas, who says it is tough to run for office when there's no one to debate. Tsongas emulates a Paul Revere, awakening the nation to its economic peril. He reports new interest in his campaign, now that prominent leaders in the party are refusing to run.