Oh, to Be on The Campaign Trail

TO tell you the truth, I would rather have been out on the snowy Iowa and New Hampshire campaign trail than tucked away in my cozy Washington condo. I would once again like to be keeping a close, on-the-scene eye on the presidential candidates, trying to figure out who will win. It's the moment when, every four years, we old-time political writers yearn to get back into the game.

We geezers do have some advice for the young whippersnappers covering the campaign. That's to be expected.

1. Watch out for surprises. You had a mild one in the Iowa caucus. Pat Buchanan kind of snuck up on you. After Alaska and Louisiana you should have seen Pat coming. He's a force to be reckoned with now, all the way to the election. I didn't hear anyone giving that much weight to the Buchanan candidacy - until it became clear on the night of the Iowa caucus that he was to finish right on the heels of Bob Dole. (It was, indeed, an unexpected development and an important one.)

Remember how Buchanan surprised George Bush in 1992 with a strong performance in New Hampshire? It's arguable that he, more than anyone else or any other factor, spoiled Bush's chances of reelection. Buchanan is a spoiler. Not a winner. Not in the end. I say this even though he just might edge out Dole in New Hampshire. Lamar Alexander, should he win in New Hampshire, might make it to the White House.

2. Watch out for ''little things'' that can balloon into major factors or even turning points. I'm thinking now of the event that, arguably, kept Ed Muskie from getting the Democratic nomination in 1972. While speaking to a Manchester, N.H., audience, front-runner Muskie was, at one point, overcome by emotion because of a scurrilous attack on his wife.

Muskie shed a tear. In those days it seemed unmanly - and certainly unpresidential. Ronald Reagan used to water up on occasion. Bill Clinton gets tears in his eyes rather readily. No one thinks anything about it these days - except that we are looking at men who, quite appropriately, show their feelings.

Anyway, there was a big media and public uproar over Muskie's - ''shame on him'' - crying. Funny thing! I was up close and I don't think he cried. I thought he was just brushing snow out of his eyes. My colleague, Richard Strout, thought the same. But the ''crying'' story prevailed. And poor Muskie's campaign was never quite the same - although it took George McGovern's strong appeal to the anti-Vietnam vote to knock Muskie out of the box.

Another ''little thing'' that became a turning-point was George Romney's 1968 admission that he had been ''brainwashed'' by bureaucrats in Vietnam when he had visited the war zone. Romney was trying merely to say that he had been lied to about the state of the war. But the media spin was that Romney had admitted to his gullibility - to what a fool he was.

It was an unfair spin. But it took hold and became the conventional wisdom. And an impeccably honest, highly capable Romney gave way in his quest for the presidency to Richard Nixon. There would have been no Watergate had Romney become president. But that's another story.

3. Finally, make a special effort in the upcoming primaries to give time - and coverage - to all the candidates. I know that the editors want to keep you with the front-runner. But the voters are entitled to know about them all. And you may be missing something big if one of the ''outsiders'' suddenly takes off.

I recall being with Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire in 1968 when no one was giving him a chance against President Johnson. There was just a handful of us reporters dogging McCarthy's footsteps most of the time. Many of my colleagues deemed him to be inconsequential. But we all know now how McCarthy embarrassed Johnson with a close second-place finish. And only then did the nation and the world belatedly get a good look at this very impressive fellow from Minnesota who had suffered from media neglect up to that time.

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