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Democratic Faces of ’88: Kennedy, Hart, Cuomo - And Gephart, Clinton, Babbit

April 10, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Edward M. Kennedy impressed a lot of Democratic Party officials with his call to be ″citizens first and constituencies second,″ but until he spends some time in New Hampshire or Iowa, don’t count him in the 1988 presidential race.

On the other hand, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York also has steered clear of the states that will kick off the 1988 campaign, but he still emerged as the big winner at the 1985 Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses.

The 1985 Iowa caucuses? You bet. Iowans hold their caucuses every year, not just during presidential campaigns, and on Feb. 25, Iowa Democrats named Cuomo as their overwhelming first choice to come to the state as a speaker.

Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas were winter visitors to New Hampshire, and Sen. Gary Hart is busy working on some more new ideas, an issues speech, one dubbed ″twin pillars″ by his staff.

Out in Arizona, Gov. Bruce Babbitt decided not to run for the Senate next year and instead is looking forward to having a ″chance to prospect around in the national arena.″

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who surprised many people with his strong run in 1984, remains highly visible and is considered likely to try again in 1988.

While most potential candidates act coy about their presidential ambitions, Kennedy calls his desire to move into the White House ″the least well kept secret of public life.″

But isn’t it a little early to talk about 1988?

Kennedy said in a recent interview that ″my sense from my own contacts with people around the country is that they’re still too exhausted from the last election to be focusing on the next one.″

Maybe the people are, but candidates have learned different lessons. George McGovern and Jimmy Carter proved a decade ago that the candidate who moves early can get the jump on better-known rivals in races for the presidential nomination.

The first stirrings can be that little-noticed trip to New Hampshire or Iowa to deliver a speech and see how it goes over among the people who will cast the first votes when the delegate-selection process gets serious three years later.

Or it might be the quiet Washington dinner or the airport meeting that brings the would-be president eye-to-eye with fund-raisers, organizers, pollsters. No commitments, mind you. The politician just wants them to know a race is possible.

In some cases, the consultants seek out particular candidates. In 1983, some Democratic consultants decided Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas would be a strong presidential candidate. But in April of that year, 17 months before the nominating convention, Bumpers declared it was too late for him to make an effective run for the nomination.

One factor he cited was the new set of party rules which had been written in 1981 with active input from Kennedy and Walter F. Mondale. Kennedy eventually decided not to run, but Mondale’s rivals claimed the rules gave him a big boost toward the nomination.

Who’s moving early this year?

Babbitt and Gephardt were in the middle of the post-election ferment and hand-wringing among Democrats and tried to be kingmakers in the contest for the party chairmanship. The effort got them publicity as young officeholders trying to get the party to consider new approaches. That was a plus, but the man elected party chairman was Paul G. Kirk Jr., best known as a former Kennedy aide.

In the 1984 race, Hart started as a dark horse and ended up one of the finalists for the nomination.

No longer a dark horse, Hart received a glowing introduction in Boston from former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts who concluded by turning to the Colorado senator and saying, ″You don’t have to announce anything, I just did it for you.″

To which, Hart replied: ″I thought he was my friend until he bestowed upon me the dubious honor of being front-runner.″

The Hart method this time around is to buttress his image as a public figure searching for new approaches to national problems. His Boston speech called for a new system of ″national service″ for young people. Later this month, he plans to deliver a speech on the ″twin pillars″ of economic and national security.

Hart and Cuomo have decisions to make about 1986 before they can jump into the 1988 race. The current betting is that Cuomo will run for a second term as governor of New York and stop just short of ruling out a presidential campaign two years later, while Hart will decide against re-election to the Senate and concentrate on a 1988 race.

When Iowans held their annual precinct caucuses on Feb. 25, the issues were local, the attention was nil.

But party chairman Dave Nagle polled the 20,000 participants on who they wanted to come to the state to speak.

″The hands-down winner was Cuomo,″ he said. ″There weren’t enough votes for second, third and fourth to try and figure it out. The legacy of the keynote address lives on.″

Cuomo made a strong impression as the keynote speaker at last year’s Democratic National Convention.

Are Iowans eager for a new influx of presidential hopefuls?

″Presidential politics is the farthest thing from their mind,″ said Nagle. But if it were, Nagle guesses that Kennedy and Hart would start with the strongest bases in the state.

The Iowa Democratic chairman was one of the party officials impressed by Kennedy’s speech in which he told Democrats ″we must seek to lead a country, not a collection of divided and contending groups.″

″I think what Kennedy said needed to be said by someone of his stature,″ said Nagle.

What is his stature?

″You know, it’s never really defined,″ replied Nagle. ″He’s always going to have a strong constituency within the party.″

George Bruno, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman, said when he read about the Kennedy speech, ″I tore it out of the newspaper. I was pleasantly surprised. ... When a Kennedy says it, I think it makes those ideas much more acceptable.″

Did he view the speech as the first shot in a Kennedy presidential campaign?

″I have no idea,″ he said. ″We’ll see if he comes to New Hampshire. He hasn’t been here in about four years and I’ve invited him a couple of times.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Donald M. Rothberg is The Associated Press’ chief political writer.

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