So Far, The Democratic Hopefuls Look Pretty Hopeless

Not so long ago, former South Dakota Senator George S. McGovern was giving Democratic pols anxiety attacks by hinting at another run for the White House. After a few trips to the hustings, wisdom prevailed over vanity, and McGovern, who won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in his 1972 bid for the Presidency, withdrew from contention. Now, party strategists have something equally worrisome to contemplate: With established Democrats abandoning the Presidential field in droves, could the 1992 election turn into another McGovernesque disaster?

Maybe. News that West Virginia Senator John D. Rockefeller IV has decided against seeking the nomination after months of testing the waters has left Democratic leaders shaken--and assessing two distinctly unnerving choices:

Paul E. Tsongas, who is running as a "probusiness liberal," has ignited few sparks thus far with his dour lectures on industrial policy. The former Massachusetts senator is having trouble raising money.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who is edging closer to a declaration of candidacy, at least moves the charisma meter a few ticks with his fist-pounding oratory. But Harkin's shrill, class-based attacks on "George Herbert Walker Bush" and his throwback populism make the Iowan an unlikely choice to win over the middle class. "Harkin can match New York Governor Mario Cuomo emotion for emotion," says Democratic strategist Mark Siegel. But, adds Robert J. Shapiro of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, "if Harkin defends Democratic policies that didn't work, he'll lose big."

Still weighing the race are several Southerners more to the liking of party moderates. Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Jr. mounted an abortive `88 run but is ambivalent about another try against a popular incumbent. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton has been hobbled by a home-state pledge to pass up `92--and hurt by a whispering campaign about his personal life--but may jump in soon. Then there's L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia's high-profile governor. A fiscal conservative, Wilder has authorized an exploratory committee and is stepping up his critiques of liberal orthodoxy. But Wilder has harmed his chances by getting drawn into a Dixie mud-fest with fellow Virginian and Democrat Senator Charles S. Robb, an old foe.

SITTING IT OUT. The list of heavyweights who have opted out of the Presidential sweepstakes is a telling indication of how tough pollsters think `92 will be. Besides Rockefeller, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has decided to sit it out. Cuomo still denies any interest, but maintains a candidate's schedule. And Texan Lloyd Bentsen has brushed aside suggestions that he cap his Senate career with a go at Bush.

Hill Democrats are already blanching at the implications of a minor figure capturing the nomination. "Some of us are starting to worry about the vacuum at the top," says a senior party official. "It could hurt the rest of the ticket."

One nightmare scenario: A Bush-bashing Harkin wins the Iowa caucuses handily. His momentum leads to a strong showing in New Hampshire, where a Southern challenge fizzles. Meanwhile, Tsongas continues to send voters to Tslumberland, allowing Harkin--backed by Big Labor--to surge in the big industrial-state contests. Harkin rolls up the nomination, campaigning on a promise of huge defense cuts, soak-the-rich taxes, business bashing, and massive antipoverty programs. The result: a fall debacle that drags down scores of congressional Democrats and costs the party control of the Senate.

But that couldn't happen in `92. Or could it?

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