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Democrats worry Rodham's a liability

Behind the scenes, the politicos are making jokes about Florida Democratic Senate candidate Hugh Rodham. He looks a little like Tonya Harding's bodyguard, they crack. He reminds us of Billy Carter, they say.

But Florida's Democrats aren't laughing.

Instead, Democratic fund-raisers and activists are grumbling that if Rodham faces incumbent GOP Sen. Connie Mack, the party hurts itself on two fronts: The race damages the chances of candidates farther down this fall's ballot and hurts President Clinton's hopes of capturing the state in 1996.

So far, Rodham hasn't done much to dispel either criticism.

The biggest news about the president's brother-in-law is he didn't register to vote until 1991, missing the chance to vote for Democrats Janet Reno for Dade County state attorney and Buddy MacKay against Mack for Senate and assorted others whom he hopes to join in the halls of power. He has also shown little grasp of the issues and has been at angry odds with reporters.

"No comment," Rodham's campaign manager, Mike Copperthite, said when asked Friday to discuss the campaign.

Rodham's candidacy comes after Democrats, led most prominently by Florida Sen. Bob Graham, failed to recruit better-known politicians to the race. Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, former Education Commissioner Betty Castor and U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus of Merritt Island all considered and rejected a bid to unseat the popular Mack.

Some Democrats are privately blaming Graham or the state party for the failed recruiting effort. More are blaming the White House and, indirectly, the Clintons for not persuading Rodham to stay out of the race.

"I do not fault Bob Graham in this. I think the White House should have stepped in," said U.S. Rep. Harry Johnston, D-West Palm Beach, reflecting the complaints and worries of a half-dozen Democratic activists interviewed this week. Almost everyone refused to be quoted by name, for fear they would offend the Clintons or Graham.

To be sure, the fight to re-elect Gov. Lawton Chiles ranks No. 1 among the state's Democrats this year. But the race at the top of this fall's ballots features the name of Mack and his opponent. Voters who mark their ballots for Mack may be inclined to continue down the ballot choosing Republicans for other races.

Strategists hope Mack's opponent will raise doubts about the senator by shining a light on his conservative voting record. Lynda Russell, the executive director of the state Democratic Party, complains that Floridians don't know about his opposition to the Clinton health plan, gun control, abortion rights and other issues she believes voters in the state support.

But the message bearer has to be legitimate. Rodham brings a big name and media attention to the race, the strategists note, but not sophistication.

"If Hugh Rodham continues to be the issue in this race, we won't be successful in our goals," Russell said, adding: "It's gotten off to a rough start."

The worst nightmare for Democrats, though, is that Rodham's brother-in-law _ President Clinton _ will become the issue in the 1994 Florida Senate race. With Rodham as his foil, Mack would have the opportunity to test campaign themes the GOP could use against Clinton in 1996. Further, the race would increase Mack's stature _ enough so that the telegenic Floridian could be a potential vice presidential pick for the GOP in 1996.

And that could put Florida out of reach for Clinton in two years.

Just a few months ago, Florida Democrats visiting the White House were told by Clinton strategists that their state was winnable in 1996. Clinton lost the state _ and its 25 electoral votes _ by 2 percentage points in 1992. At the time, he thought he could win the state and he argued with strategists about returning for campaigning in the closing days.

The state's Democrats weren't expecting to be in this situation. In 1988, Mack beat MacKay by a slim 33,612 votes, and fuming Democrats vowed to settle the score when he came up for re-election again.

In the six years since, Mack has amazed and impressed even the most loyal Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation, has worked to moderate his conservative image and established a solid record of constituent work. His close relationship with Graham makes many Democrats privately wonder if the Democratic senator pulled up short in helping find a strong challenger to oppose Mack.

But Graham is in a difficult position. He's the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a year when there's 34 Senate races around the country. With limited time and money, he must rank the Democratic Senate candidates who are the most competitive and worthy of the most attention and resources. Even with a strong candidate, Florida Democrats' chances of bumping off Mack are a long-shot.

Nonetheless, at least three prominent Democrats spoke with Graham about running against Mack.

Castor, who has since become the president of the University of South Florida, visited with him early last year, spoke with some media consultants and decided not to run.

Bacchus, who eked out a win in a Republican district in 1992, considered the Mack race briefly and discussed it with Graham. The senator didn't encourage Bacchus to run.

The most elaborate courtship was of Freedman. Graham met with her twice, and she asked him to promise to campaign for her in hopes he would translate his popularity to her campaign. By all reports, Graham agreed. But her friends point out she may not have been completely reassured because Graham typically has been tepid in endorsing Democrats in past general election races.

With those three out of the race, those left are Rodham, Miami lawyer Ellis Rubin and a couple of little-known activists eyeing a campaign. Of course, a lot could happen between now and the time the voters choose _ though Rodham is seen as the likely Democratic loser against Mack right now.

"He might just catch on," Attorney General Bob Butterworth said, sounding more hopeful than most Democrats. "You never can tell."

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