Still On The Bench At Kickoff Time

According to ancient ritual, the Labor Day weekend is supposed to mark the start of serious political campaigning--and sound the opening bell for next fall's Presidential election. Not this year. Battling indecision and a Soviet crisis that underscores President Bush's command of foreign policy, most Democrats are shunning the campaign trail for the comforts of home.

Former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas, the party's lone declared candidate, is taking some time off. So is Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, though he's mulling a Sept. 15 announcement. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, expected to reveal his plans soon, will spend the next two weeks sounding out voters in his home state.

Indeed, the only Democratic aspirant to take to the stump during the waning days of August was Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, who took his soft Southern drawl and a busload of reporters on a two-day New Hampshire tour. Wilder blasted "the fiscal follies back in Washington" and unveiled a plan to transfer $50 billion in federal money to state governments and taxpayers. "I'm testing the waters," he told BUSINESS WEEK. "I'm finding them warm." The Virginian will announce his intentions soon. But party pros believe he's mainly laying the groundwork for a `96 bid. "Some campaign kickoff," mutters Democratic strategist Brian Lunde. "This is beginning to look like `56, when no one was interested in going against incumbent Dwight Eisenhower except Adlai Stevenson."

Actually, it's the Democrats' newest form of spectator sport: political bungee-jumping. In it, would-be candidates tie the cords of ambition to their ankles, plunge off the precipice of desire--and bounce right back to where they started from. Already, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senators Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia have sized up Bush's poll ratings and opted to pass. Stunned party officials hope that the current slender crop of contenders will at least make a credible show of engaging Bush in debate.

'NEON ARROW.' That won't be easy. Buoyed by the collapse of the Soviet empire, the "foreign policy President" is bobbing far above the political fray. "The race isn't on," says David Axelrod, a Democratic media consultant. "The officials are there, the starter's gun is loaded--and there's hardly anyone on the starting line." Adds Republican pollster Linda DiVall: "No Democrat wants to announce after Labor Day and have the first question be: `What would you do about Lithuania?' "

Earlier this summer, Democrats were beginning to make some headway zinging Bush over soaring health costs, inferior schools, and the squeeze on the middle class. But the domestic assault has been muffled by events abroad. To complicate matters, hopes that a fragile recovery might trip up Bush are fading. "I believe we will avoid a double-dip recession," says New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who nonetheless insists that Bush is beatable. "Eventually, there'll be a neon arrow pointing to domestic problems."

That may be. But for the moment, a few Democratic unknowns are competing for public attention against the backdrop of a healing economy and a world cleansed of communism. Says John Petrocik, a University of California at Los Angeles political scientist: "Democrats have convinced themselves that `92 is a disaster in the offing, so . . . what they get is fringe candidates and a self-fulfilling prophecy."

TOUGH ORATOR. The Democratic field could still grow. For instance, there's Jesse Jackson. He boasts: "I got 7 million votes and 1,300 delegates in `88. By any objective standard, I am the front-runner." Jackson has, in fact, laid on a couple of appearances in Iowa. But associates still expect him to accept a deal as a television commentator rather than risk being tagged as a three-time loser. Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who has waxed hot and cold on `92, is warming up to the notion again. And in California, former Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. may try to beam himself back into Presidential contention.

But for now, party leaders are coming to realize that their nominee may come from the group of Presidential wannabes affectionately known as "the Four Freshmen" (box). The quartet's most strident tenor is Iowa's Harkin. A tough orator, he has won raves from party activists by blasting Bush as a defender of wealth and privilege. Harkin backs a long string of expensive social programs and his main idea for paying for them has been to point to big cuts in the defense budget.

Reactions to all this are mixed. "I'm excited by Harkin," insists Maryland Democratic Chairman Nathan Landow. "He's a scrapper, and he makes Democrats feel like Democrats again." That's exactly what worries moderates. "Harkin is not a populist," says one party operative. "He's Illinois Senator Paul Simon with a sneer, promoting the same old social welfarism we failed to sell in the past. We need something different."

Tsongas certainly fills that bill. Styling himself as a "pro-business liberal," he is basing his candidacy on a call for a U. S. industrial policy. Tsongas wants to cut capital-gains taxes, boost research, and make America a tougher international competitor. But his didactic campaign style has kept his candidacy from catching fire.

That leaves Clinton and Wilder competing for the role of leading Southern moderate. Clinton would wage a classic outsider's campaign. He backs "workfare," education reform, means-testing for entitlement programs, and a war on Washington waste. Wilder, while liberal on abortion and civil rights, takes an even sterner line, bragging about his tough stance against criminals and his decision to slash Virginia's budget rather than raise taxes.

THREE Cs. Of the two, Clinton strikes party pros as having the most potential. But his boyish appearance--at 45, he looks a little bit like a young Mickey Rooney on steroids--and lack of diplomatic credentials have Republicans chuckling about a `92 "stature gap" with George Bush.

As for Bush, so far he has been far too busy thwocking golf balls and getting briefed on the Soviets to give much thought to the political threat from the Fab Four. From Kennebunkport, the President has passed the word that his advisers should forget about organizing any reelection drive until late September at the earliest. "A campaign right now would make Bush a target," says a top Presidential political aide. "It would harm more than help."

When Bush does finally rouse himself to hit the campaign trail, don't expect any flashy new moves from Mr. Prudence. Aides say that the President will wage a classic "Three Cs" campaign, railing against crime, Congress, and the GOP's biggest enemy of all in `92--complacency. What would it take to galvanize Bush into action? Only the sudden entry of Cuomo, the Democrats' reluctant warrior. Says a Bush adviser: "None of the other guys can get into the leadership circle with Bush. Cuomo has some shrewd political skills. Put it this way: He's more of an adult."

Both Roger Ailes, Bush's media guru, and Rich Bond, a senior strategist, feel that the Democrats' distress calls will inevitably draw the New York governor into the race. And if that happens, what now looks like a listless election could be transformed into something else again.

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