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A Republican Could Beat Clinton in ’96--But Who?

<i> William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN</i>

Who says you can’t beat somebody with nobody?

One recent poll asked Americans to choose between Bill Clin ton and “the Republican Party’s candidate for President.” Result? Clinton got 43% of the vote. The ghost Republican beat him with 50%.

Clinton’s 43% may sound familiar. It’s exactly what he got in the 1992 election. Clinton has kept his support. But he hasn’t expanded it. And he can’t win a two-way race unless he expands it.

You can win a three -way race with 43% of the vote, of course. That’s what Clinton did in 1992. What happens today if you throw Ross Perot into the mix? Amazingly, Perot still gets about 20%--the same vote he got in 1992. Perot may have disappeared from the news since the catastrophic debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement last November. But he has kept his support.

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With Perot in the mix, Clinton edges out the unnamed Republican by three points. Just as he edged out George Bush by five points in 1992. Perot has not been too friendly to Clinton, and his followers aren’t either. Take Perot off the ballot and his supporters go for the unnamed Republican 3 to 1 over Clinton.

Bottom line: Democrats had better hope Perot runs in 1996. They need him to split the anti-Clinton vote.

Notice something interesting about these poll results? Nothing much has changed since 1992. As bad as that is for the Democrats, it’s even worse for the Republicans. They lost in 1992. And they have no “man to beat” for 1996.

The “man to beat” is an important title in U.S. politics. Whoever holds that title is the leader of the opposition. Right now, the title is vacant.

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This is surprising because, as the poll shows, the 1996 GOP nomination may be worth having. But the field is wide open. When Republicans were asked which of 14 potential candidates they favored for the ’96 presidential nomination, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas topped the list--at 20%. Next came two men who may not even be Republicans--retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and Perot. The only other contender to earn double digits was former Vice President Dan Quayle (11%).

It’s unusual for a party not to have a “man to beat” two years before a presidential election. How does someone get that title? For a party out of power, the title often goes to the most recent vice president. After the 1964 Barry M. Goldwater debacle, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon was the Republicans’ man to beat for 1968. After the Democrats got wiped out in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, Walter F. Mondale, became the man to beat for 1984.

So the title ought to go to Quayle. He is doing what he can to raise his stature. He did a potato-chip commercial. He’s writing a book. He’s building bridges to the religious right. But let’s face it. It is rarely said of Quayle, as it was of Julius Caesar, that “he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs.”

In the past, the “man to beat” often went to losers--candidates who were nominated before and lost. Thomas E. Dewey was nominated by the GOP in 1944 and lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt died in 1945, Dewey became the GOP front-runner for 1948. Adlai E. Stevenson lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Then the Democrats nominated him again, in 1956, just to make sure.

The record holder in this category is William Jennings Bryan. The Democrats nominated Bryan in 1896. He lost to William McKinley. They nominated Bryan again in 1900. He lost to McKinley again. The Democrats figured out that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea--Bryan was kind of radical--so they nominated Judge Alton Parker, a conservative, in 1904. He lost, too. In 1908, it was back to Bryan, who lost a third time.

Nixon lost in 1960, then lost for California governor in 1962. In 1968, he was resurrected from the political dead and won the presidency--twice. Then he went on to prove what the country should have learned the first time. Once a loser, always a loser.

The last time a loser became the “man to beat” was Edmund S. Muskie before the 1972 election. Muskie had been the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 1968, and vice presidential candidates are rarely blamed for the party’s loss. In fact, Muskie was such a formidable “man to beat” that the Nixon White House broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate looking for material on him.

These days, however, losers don’t become the “man to beat.” They become the man to forget. Like “what’s his name?”, the Massachusetts liberal the Democrats nominated in 1988. Or Bush. Has an incumbent President ever lost the White House and then gone on to win it back? Yes. Once. Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, in 1892. Bush is probably immersed in Cleveland’s biography right now. But here’s a clue: That was 100 years ago, and it ain’t gonna happen again.

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Another way to become the “man to beat” is to run for the nomination, lose to someone else and then watch your party go down to defeat. That gives you a powerful message: “I told you so.” Ronald Reagan became the GOP’s “man to beat” for 1980, after he lost the nomination to Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Gary Hart became the Democrats’ “man to beat” for 1988, after he lost out to Mondale in 1984.

Now let’s see, who would be the GOP’s Mr. “I told you so” in 1996? Answer: Patrick J. Buchanan. Never mind.

The “man to beat” is often a figure of stature in the party. That’s what Robert Taft was for the Republicans in 1952 and Nelson A. Rockefeller was for the GOP in 1964. They both lost the nomination. On the Democratic side, Edward M. Kennedy was the “man to beat” for 1976 and Mario M. Cuomo was the “man to beat” for 1992. They both declined to run just before the campaign started.

Figures of stature have a big problem. They are usually Washington insiders or identified with the party Establishment--like Taft, Rockefeller, Kennedy and Cuomo. That’s death in this populist era.

Who is the GOP’s current figure of stature? Why Dole, of course. Dole is Mr. Washington, the consummate insider and the quintessential Establishment figure. He’s also a senior statesman (he’ll be 73 in 1996). And he’s been around the track a few times--once for vice president (1976) and twice for President (1980 and 1988). Great credentials for a leader of the opposition. Not so great as the Republicans’ hope for the future.

What about Jack Kemp and William J. Bennett and Dick Cheney and Lamar Alexander and Carroll A. Campbell Jr. and William Weld and Pete Wilson and James A. Baker III and Phil Gramm? All worthy souls and good, patriotic Americans. But none is the “man to beat.”

Even the GOP factions have no leaders. Conservative Republicans do not have a champion; the first choice of self-described conservatives for the GOP nomination is Dole, at 20%. Moderate Republicans do not have a champion; the first choice of moderates for the GOP nomination is Dole, at 20%. Even the religious right has no champion, which is why Quayle keeps showing up at their forums.

In short, it looks like the Republicans face a wide-open brawl in 1996, just like the Democrats did in 1976 and 1988. But there’s one big difference. The primary season used to be an epic drama. Now it’s a miniseries. Two thirds of the delegates will be chosen in the first five weeks-- before the California primary on March 26.

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That kind of foreshortened nominating season is tailor-made for a “man to beat.” Only there isn’t one. So a candidate is likely to emerge from the pack quickly (in New Hampshire, as usual) and then sew up the nomination in record time (in New York, as usual).

Then the party will have seven months to figure out who they’ve nominated.*


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