Democratic tossed salad in South Carolina

Posted: May 06, 2003 12:00 AM

COLUMBIA, South Carolina--It could have been worse.

Saturday night's tossed salad of nine Democratic presidential candidates and their 60-second thoughts on war, peace and other things might have occurred in a state that a Democratic presidential candidate has a prayer of winning. Fortunately, the event of dueling sound bites will not affect next year's outcome here, where the last successful Democratic presidential candidate was Jimmy Carter, seven elections ago.

The six serious candidates must endure these events until caucuses and primaries weed out the unserious. Carol Moseley Braun is trying to use as a stepping stone to the presidency the ambassadorship to New Zealand, where she went after failing to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate from a state, Illinois, that has elected only one Republican--her 1998 opponent--to the Senate in the last eight elections. The Rev. Al Sharpton, theologian and thespian, offers his career in the street theater of perpetual New York City protest as his claim to presidential considerations. Rep. Dennis Kucinich is the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only presidential candidate to have presided over the bankruptcy of a major American city? (Cleveland, where he was mayor from 1977 to 1979.) His big idea Saturday night was to ``get the profit out of health care,'' which certainly would change the incentives to provide health care.

Of the serious candidates, one certainty is that Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, will not be elected Mr. Congeniality by the other members of this moveable feast of political maneuvering. Or Mr. Consistency.

It was perhaps severe for Sen. John Kerry's campaign to accuse Dean of ``pathological recklessness with the facts,'' but Dean has been wrong or tricky with some accusations against fellow candidates, on matters ranging from the war to taxes. And the day Baghdad fell, Dean said of Saddam's fate, ``I suppose that's a good thing.'' But Saturday night ``suppose'' had been supplanted by Dean's being ``delighted'' that Saddam is gone.

Delighted, but he fears Iraq will now be more dangerous to the United States. He also has said America ``won't always have the strongest military.'' But here he said ``no commander in chief would ever, and I am no exception, willingly allow our military to shrink.'' Got that?

Dean, who says he represents ``the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,'' may have become inebriated by the rapturous reception he has received from his party's left-wing and antiwar activist cadre. Florida Sen. Bob Graham introduced himself as from ``the electable wing of the Democratic Party.''

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman also stressed the folly of nominating someone who cannot pass the threshold test of strength on national security, which Lieberman calls ``the first goal of our government.'' But many--probably most--Democratic activists have other first goals, including making the world safe from America's military.

Lieberman--supporter of the war and, like Sen. John Edwards, a critic of Rep. Dick Gephardt's health care plan (``we can't afford'' such ``big-spending Democratic ideas of the past'')--is remembering the general election. But you cannot steal first base--you must get nominated in order to win in November. Watch Gephardt. He supported the war, but has red meat for the liberal incorrigibles who choose Democratic nominees--a health care plan financed by repealing the Bush tax cuts.

Coming immediately after the Jan. 19 Iowa Caucuses and the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, South Carolina's Feb. 3 primary will the be first time African-American voters--perhaps almost 40 percent of the turnout--will be so important so early in the nominating process. But Delaware, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma also may vote that day, and Michigan votes four days later. The nominee almost certainly will be known no later than the evening of March 2, when California, New York, Maryland and perhaps Ohio will vote.

This is perilous. If such a compressed schedule had existed in 1984, when Gary Hart acquired astonishing momentum by upsetting Walter Mondale in New Hampshire, Hart would have won the nomination before Mondale had time to regroup and grind him down. The potential for volatility among Democrats is suggested by a poll conducted April 10-16 by the Pew Research Center showing that 69 percent of Democrats cannot name any of the nine candidates. Kerry, the most frequently named, is named by just 9 percent of respondents. Nine percent think Al Gore is running.

The president has 71 percent job approval. Ronald Reagan had 58 percent in 1984, when he swept 49 states.