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Democrats' strategy is ready to backfire

The Democrats may have outsmarted themselves again. Ever since the disastrous 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic leaders have been saying that the party has to settle on a candidate as quickly as possible.

Party chairman Ron Brown has made it his business to try to shut the process down quickly. He told USA Today last week, "The sooner we can devote 100 percent of our energy to challenging George Bush _ and none of it to challenging each other _ the better off we'll be."

But there was one factor Brown failed to take into account. Suppose no Democrat with a national reputation entered the presidential race. The result would be a field of unknowns. One of the unknowns could burst upon the scene, gain momentum and sew up the nomination before anybody knew much about him. The party would then have six months to find out exactly whom they were nominating. That's what seems to be happening this year. The party could end up with a candidate who is unstoppable after a few weeks of primaries _ and unelectable in November.

Democrats have tried to speed up the primary calendar. This year, almost 50 percent of the pledged delegates will be chosen by the end of the fourth week of primaries. But the troubles of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton have given party leaders a new worry _ not that the party will take too long to make a decision, but that the decision will be made too quickly.

Democrats could end up with a damaged candidate and an irreversible process. All of which illustrates two essential laws of presidential nominating politics. One is that nobody controls the process. The other is that anything you do to try to control the process will have unintended consequences.

Frontrunner Clinton has been in the news a lot because of allegations regarding his sex life and draft status during the Vietnam War. So he is gaining name recognition, which is pushing him up in the polls. But his negative ratings are also going up, pulling him down in the polls. The big question in the New Hampshire primary is, which trend will overtake the other?

Will party leaders be reassured by a Clinton victory in New Hampshire? Probably not. They will panic because they will see the party being rushed to nominate a damaged candidate.

Paul E. Tsongas now seems to be the most plausible alternative to Clinton in New Hampshire. Suppose Tsongas wins the primary. Will party leaders be reassured? Probably not. Most will see Tsongas as a hard sell outside New England. If New Hampshire votes for Tsongas, it will be interpreted as taking a pass. "We don't really like any of these candidates, so we're voting for the guy next door." Party leaders will panic because they don't have a plausible candidate.

So they will try to entice a new candidate into the race. A Mario M. Cuomo write-in campaign is under way in New Hampshire, where half the Democrats say they are dissatisfied with the current field. The problem is that after New Hampshire, the filing deadlines will have passed for primaries in which a majority of the pledged delegates will be chosen. The Cuomo write-in campaign may not draw the New York governor into the race. But it could draw attention away from the other Democrats _ and therefore help Clinton get the nomination.

If a new candidate does get in, there is no reason to believe Clinton will withdraw, especially if he is sitting on a large bloc of southern delegates. The party's proportional representation rules are designed to keep dead candidates alive. The result could be a bloody and protracted fight all the way to the convention. That is exactly the situation the speeded-up process was supposed to avoid.

National Journal