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New Hampshire won't take away all the suspense

This state's unpredictable voters traditionally have culled the weak and the anointed from the presidential herd, narrowing the field to a front-runner in each party and a few survivors who limp out of the nation's first primary state hoping for another chance that rarely comes.

This year, New Hampshire may do more to muddle the Democratic race than to simplify it.

Since 1952, no one has been elected president without having won the New Hampshire primary. That's the year U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won the Granite State primary, only to have Democratic Party leaders give the nomination to Adlai Stevenson.

If this spell goes unbroken this year, the next president will be either George Bush, the Republican incumbent, or former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, the first Democrat to announce for 1992 and the last candidate anyone expected to catch fire.

That assumes, of course, that Tsongas wins here, which he is expected to do, and then goes on to claim his party's nomination, which is not at all certain.

Tsongas started out as the favorite here, then lost the momentum to Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Tsongas reclaimed the lead after Clinton stumbled over charges of philandering and draft evasion. The governor has begun to regain his footing, weekend polls suggest, but it's probably too late for him to overtake Tsongas.

Does a Tsongas victory here mean the Democratic contest is over? Only if his rivals give up, which is not about to happen. U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska are vying for a respectable third-place finish to keep their hopes alive. Probably only one of them will be left standing after the South Dakota primary later this month. Jerry Brown is irrelevant, since no one is taking him seriously.

Clinton, despite the heavy damage his campaign has suffered, is still in a position to derail Tsongas in the South in early March. For all his problems, Clinton has the most money and the strongest organization in key states. Gary Hart won an upset victory in New Hampshire over Walter Mondale in 1984, but Mondale went on to win the nomination and lose to Ronald Reagan.

So barring a huge surprise in New Hampshire's voting today _ a Kerrey upset, for example _ Democrats are likely to wind up with a choice between two high-risk candidates: a draft evader and a cancer survivor used to beating the odds. Will there be more revelations about Clinton's character? Tsongas has been cancer-free for five years, but his doctor says the word "cure" is not in his medical vocabulary. Will Americans vote for a cancer patient for president?

These questions have some Democrats praying for a write-in miracle in this primary election to bring Mario Cuomo into the race, late though the hour is.

Cuomo seems to be encouraging the mischief. On Sunday, the New York governor again said only his political struggle to pass a state budget is keeping him out of the fray. "If I had a budget, I would be in New Hampshire right now," he told the Associated Press. "If I had a budget, I would be campaigning on the stump right now. I would be there from early morning to late at night if I had a budget."

Thank God he doesn't have a budget, some Democrats are saying. They have lost all patience with Cuomo and his maddening Hamlet act. "The only thing Capt. Cuomo will toss this year is not his hat in the ring, but banana peels under the heels of any Democrat breaking out front," wrote Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan.

A more important question is how far the momentum of a New Hampshire victory can carry Tsongas, the only candidate not to pander to voters or insult their intelligence. He has practically no organization in the southern states. Only in recent weeks, after his surge here, has big money started coming in from the Greek-American community that emptied its pockets in 1988 for Michael Dukakis, another one of its own.

If Clinton is to be put out of business, he has to be tripped in his native South, which is considered Tsongas' weakest region. Bob Kerrey would like to have the pleasure. If his campaign can survive New Hampshire and pick up a win in South Dakota, his strategists say, Kerrey will challenge Clinton head-on in Georgia's March 3 primary.

The Georgia contest comes a week before Super Tuesday, March 10, when most southern states, including Florida, will hold their presidential primaries. Georgia will be closely watched as the first southern referendum on Clinton's evasion of the military draft during the Vietnam War. Southerners are presumed to have a stronger pro-military bent than people in other regions and to be less sympathetic to draft evaders.

Kerrey's active presence in Georgia could powerfully frame the issue: Kerrey, who won a Medal of Honor and lost a leg in Vietnam; Clinton, who misled his draft board and wrote a letter to an ROTC colonel thanking him for "saving me from the draft" and expressing passionate anti-war views.

Most of Georgia's top Democratic officeholders are lined up with Clinton. But Kerrey has the active support of Secretary of State Max Cleland, who lost both legs in Vietnam and gets around in a wheelchair. When they share a stage, the draft issue can't be dodged.

Whatever the outcome here, Southerners can be grateful that New Hampshire voters will not drain most of the drama and suspense from the Democratic campaign before sending it our way.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times.