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NEWS ANALYSIS : Democrats Wrestle Over Message Voters Will Hear

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In the early stages of the Democratic presidential campaign, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton are dominating the debate over what message the party should offer to regain the White House in 1992.

Harkin started fast by staking a claim to the party’s liberal core. But Clinton has been gaining rapidly with an agenda designed to give him broader appeal and, his supporters argue, make him more electable.

Probably the biggest surprise has been the failure of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, regarded as the third member of the top tier of contenders, to live up to expectations generated by his war hero background and his reputation for charisma.

“Kerrey has yet to put his message together in a way that is digestible and consistent,” said Michael McCurry, a senior adviser to the candidate.

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These assessments remain qualified, in part, by the campaign’s slow start--the race is still being closely watched by only a small number of party activists.

A Times survey last week showed that about 40% of registered voters interviewed had no opinion about Harkin, Clinton, Kerrey or the three other nationally prominent Democratic candidates--former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Supporters of all six agree that the current picture could be dramatically transformed by several developments, most obviously a decision by New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to enter the race. The lineup also could be scrambled if Kerrey, still regarded as possessing great potential, should suddenly catch fire or if one of the second-tier contenders makes an unexpectedly strong showing in the early primaries.

But even if the principal protagonists change, circumstances suggest that the plot line now developing will continue, pitting a proponent of Democratic traditions rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal against an advocate of revisionism.

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“Whether it’s Cuomo or Harkin on one side and Clinton or Kerrey on the other, we’ll end up with two competing messages,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Neubauer. “We’ll have this great debate, and I don’t know which way the party will go.”

This debate is being shaped by two overriding realities that to some degree are offsetting.

One is the dismal performance by Democratic nominees in recent presidential elections: The party has lost five of the last six contests, three of them by landslides. These failures have sparked the push, now spearheaded by Clinton, for the party to change its ways in order to recover the voters it has lost to the GOP.

“What Clinton is trying to do is to reach out to the middle-class voters who have been abandoning the Democratic Party for the past 25 years,” said Al From, an adviser to the Arkansas governor. From is also president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that Clinton chaired until he launched his presidential campaign.

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But in counterpoint to the Democrats’ gloomy record is a newer reality--the prolonged national economic distress that appears to be shaking President Bush’s hold on the electorate less than 10 months after the U.S. triumph in the Persian Gulf War had made him appear politically invincible.

The economic slump has bolstered the confidence of traditional liberals--for whom Harkin is the principal current spokesman--in their long-held beliefs. And it helps to justify Harkin’s strategy of energizing Democrats who failed to vote in past presidential elections rather than reaching out, as is Clinton’s aim, to those who have been backing the GOP.

“We have to fight on our territory . . . and give up the silly notion that we somehow have to go after voters who voted for Bush last time,” Harkin said. “You don’t win the hearts and minds of the American people by telling them you’ve lost yours.”

Both he and Clinton are compelling speakers. But not surprisingly, the response they get varies with the nature of the audience. At the AFL-CIO convention in Detroit in early November, Harkin scored with his populist rhetoric.

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“When I’m President of the United States,” he declared, “every double-breasting, scab-hiring, union-hurting employer in America will know the working people of America will have a friend in the White House.”

But later in the month, when the six candidates addressed a group that considers itself more pragmatic--the Assn. of Democratic State Chairs--it was Clinton who got the biggest hand with his folksy recitation of centrist guidelines.

While lambasting Bush for refusing to take responsibility for the state of the economy, Clinton was quick to point to the faults of the Democratic-controlled Congress and to warn that condemning the GOP was not enough to assure Democratic victory. “The blame game will not bring us back to the White House,” he said.

Ohio party Chairman Eugene Branstool said of Clinton: “A lot of people from the Northern industrial states were concerned about him because of his role with the Democratic Leadership Council, but I think he reassured them.”

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Many were impressed with Clinton’s discussion of issues ranging from free trade to education.

“Our trade policy ought to be simple,” Clinton said. “We favor expanded trade. If you (other nations) play by our rules, we would love it. If you don’t want to do it, we’ll play by your rules. But we’re going to win again in the global economy.”

He also called for a national education policy that focuses on “excellence, equality, accountability and access.”

By contrast, Harkin gets lower marks on substance. Even some of those who enjoy his indictments of Bush complain that he does not offer the sort of agenda that makes up much of Clinton’s stump speech.

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Harkin partisans claim that the Iowa senator offers more substance than some listeners give him credit for. But it is understandable if audiences sometimes miss his points, given Harkin’s penchant for macho metaphors that can border on self-caricature.

“Bush has feet of clay, and I’m going to take a hammer to him,” he told audiences in his early speeches. In New Hampshire, he recently proclaimed: “We need a Democrat who is not afraid to take a 2-by-4 to Bush and his fat-cat friends.”

And in his remarks to the state chairs in Chicago, Harkin said: “If I can get into the ring, I can flatten George Bush.” He also declared that he would not be content with holding Bush’s feet to the fire but rather would “hold them in the fire.”

Harkin likely would be the candidate most immediately affected if Cuomo enters the race because many within party circles believe much of the liberal support he is counting on would be lured away by the New York governor.

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Just as Cuomo poses a threat to Harkin on the left, Kerrey presents a challenge to Clinton in the center--if the Nebraska senator can pull together his candidacy.

On the surface, Kerrey entered the race with considerable assets. He won the Medal of Honor--and lost part of his leg--in the Vietnam War. Since winning election to the Senate in 1988, he has established a reputation as an expert in health care--a hot issue early in the campaign. And last month, he unveiled “a strategy for rebuilding the wealth of America” that includes halving the number of Cabinet agencies.

But so far Kerrey has had a hard time blending these threads into a coherent theme. “Kerrey sounded like he hasn’t figured out what he really wants to say yet,” said Al La Pierre, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party, after hearing Kerrey at the state chairs meeting.

“His message is more complicated than the others,” Kerrey adviser William Shore said. “But that’s OK, there is plenty of time.”

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While Clinton and his aides keep an eye on Kerrey, they also ponder another potential problem--persistent gossip about reports that the 45-year-old governor has had extramarital affairs in the past. While the rumors remain unsubstantiated, some party leaders who recall the disclosures that abruptly ended Gary Hart’s 1988 candidacy are troubled.

“For people who are plugged in, this is a major concern,” said one state party chairman favorably inclined to Clinton’s candidacy.

“It’s actually been less of a problem than I thought it would be,” Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg said of the rumors. “But he is going to have to deal with it, because each time his candidacy surges, it will be revived. That’s one of his challenges.”

Greenberg also predicted that ultimately Clinton’s personal life “will turn out to be a positive.” Citing the active role Clinton’s wife, Hilary, is playing in the campaign, Greenberg said of the couple: “They have a genuine marriage, with all its problems and strengths, and people are going to see that.”

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Here is a brief look at the lower-tier candidates:

BROWN--As former two-term governor of California and two-time Democratic presidential aspirant, he enjoys high name recognition. And his message--that the political system has been taken over by “a confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consulting"--seems well suited to tap pervasive voter discontent with the political Establishment.

Said Randy Durham, an Illinois volunteer in the Brown campaign: “There is a great feeling out there that the people have to take the process back.”

But Kerrey aide McCurry, pointing to Brown’s political background, said: “His message doesn’t square with who he is and where he has been.”

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TSONGAS--He appears to have the best chance of breaking into the upper level through a strong showing in the Feb. 18 primary in New Hampshire, in large part because of its proximity to his own home state.

Tsongas’ relatively high name recognition in New Hampshire has made him the leader in the primary’s early polls and helped him muster a legion of volunteers. Striving to maximize these advantages, he has spent 35 days in the state since he announced his candidacy last April, far more than any of his rivals.

Tsongas helps himself with a dry sense of humor. “Let’s try winning and see what it feels like,” he said at a fund-raiser in Iowa last month. “If we don’t like it, we can go back to our traditions.”

WILDER--He received an initial boost on the national scene when he became the nation’s first elected black governor in 1989. Members of the Democratic Leadership Council also liked his stress on fiscal discipline and saw him as a buffer against another candidacy by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

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But now that Jackson is out of the race, interest in Wilder seems to have faded among centrist Democrats.

Undeterred, Wilder continues to emphasize his fiscal message. He told the state chairs meeting that he could “jump start” the economy by trimming $50 billion from the federal budget and using most of the savings for a middle-class tax cut. But with Jackson on the sidelines, Wilder also is stepping up efforts to gain black support. He made a stop in Dubuque, Iowa, site of a recent flurry of cross-burnings, to accuse Bush of fostering “the rising tension of racism.”

Wilder’s big challenge will come on 1992’s Super Tuesday, when a flock of Southern primaries will test his appeal to blacks and his performance will be measured against Jackson’s in 1988, when he won five states.

A Look at the Candidates

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EDMUND G. (JERRY) BROWN

Assets: Candidacy taps into prevalent anti-Establishment mood.

Liabilities: Political background--including stint as California party chairman--seems to contradict current anti-political stance.

GOV. BILL CLINTON

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Assets: Combines sophisticated approach to issues with polished populism on the podium.

Liabilities: Arkansas governor’s ties to moderate Democratic Leadership Council irks party liberals.

IOWA SEN. TOM HARKIN

Assets: Unapologetic defender of traditional liberal programs and philosophy.

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Liabilities: The stridence of his attack drowns out positive side of the rhetoric.

NEBRASKA SEN. BOB KERREY

Assets: Offers authentic profile in courage, certified by Medal of Honor won in Vietnam War.

Liabilities: Has had difficulty finding a focus for his candidacy.

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PAUL E. TSONGAS

Assets: Takes serious, thoughtful approach to fundamental economic problems.

Liabilities: Has dull, plodding speaking style.

GOV. L. DOUGLAS WILDER

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Assets: Gained recognition as nation’s first elected black governor.

Liabilities: Must overcome deep-rooted racial prejudice, which nearly cost him Virginia governorship.


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