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Democrats are on the verge of going under

New Hampshire is about as good a cross-section of the United States as Utah or North Dakota. It has nothing in common with the rest of the United States. Well, not quite nothing _ it is in the pits of the recession with near 10 percent unemployment.

New Hampshire always votes Republican in presidential elections. If Republicans want Granite State voters to pick their party's presidential nominee, that's one thing. There is, however, no logical reason that atypical New Hampshire _ the mother lode of maple syrup _ should pick the Democratic nominee. But more than likely, it will.

Until recently, the quirkiness of New Hampshire didn't really matter. Gov. Bill Clinton was riding high with the journalists and the pollsters. He was the consensus choice of the party regulars. He was the crown prince on the way to his party's coronation. Out of a humdrum field, he at least stood a chance against George Bush in November. He had the "e" word: electability.

Suddenly the flattering journalism collapsed. Clinton was hit with a one-two punch: Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam War draft. Clinton's high polish of electability was tarnished.

What then of the others back in the pack, those already branded with the curse of non-electability? Here they are. Bob Kerrey. Sometimes engaging, sometimes boring. Tom Harkin. He talks a lot about Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. When he talks to an audience under 40, some people ask him, "Who was Truman?" Jerry Brown. The man with the 800 number. Dial and donate to his campaign or buy a knife sharpener.

Wait a minute. As Clinton fades, a droopy star flickers from next door. Just a bare 15 minutes away from the New Hampshire state line lives former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. His glum visage was already known to New Hampshire because Boston TV stations overwhelm the state. Tsongas has the charm of Neville Chamberlain and the ready wit of Robert Taft. He calls himself a "venture capitalist."

Here's the gospel according to Paul. People should save more so that there will be money available to invest in new and worthwhile technologies to replace the old industries that of necessity must fall by the wayside. Get that? Save to build the new. But, on the other hand, we should spend more to stimulate the economy and maybe we should save some of those old industries _ textiles, for example _ where there are thousands of jobs at stake. Got it? Spend and protect.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary the Democratic Party is precariously close to eliminating itself from the 1992 election. Anything but a clear and convincing Clinton victory will sound alarm bells in the ears of Democratic officeholders around the country _ especially in the House of Representatives, where lots of incumbents are running scared in newly apportioned districts.

The pressure would then be on Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt or Lloyd Bentsen to "save the party."' But the potential saviors would face some harsh fundamental realities.

The filing deadline clock continues to tick and it's already too late to enter primaries in over half the states. Filling delegate slates is a complicated effort requiring enormous planning. Both the presidential campaign itself and the fund-raising necessary to support it require the patient assembling of a skillful staff.

You can heat up leftovers in a microwave. You can't microwave a presidential campaign.

Tom Eagleton, former U.S. senator from Missouri, was briefly the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1972.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch; distributed by Scripps Howard News Service