Single Democrats make presidential race look like bachelor party


They've got platforms. They've got handlers. They've got backers. They've got guts.

So what's missing from this picture?

They've got no wives.

Not since a divorced Adlai Stevenson ran against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 has a single man been a major contender for the White House. But now, as the 1992 election nears, the Democratic Party is beginning to look more and more like a stag party.

When divorced Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey threw his hat into the presidential ring earlier this week, with his teen-age son and daughter and his ex-wife seated behind him, he became the second of three bachelor Democrats to launch solo races for the country's top office this time around.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, also divorced, declared his candidacy last month with his three children by his side.

And never-married former California governor Jerry Brown is expected to join the game sometime soon.

What we're seeing is a reflection of the diversity of American families played out on a national stage for the first time in the modern era," says Ann Grimes, author of "Running Mates," a book about the spouses of the 1988 presidential candidates.

"No longer is 'married with children' necessarily the norm," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

But besides reflecting the growing population of divorced and unmarried adults in this country, the latest crop of Democratic hopefuls -- which includes married candidates whose wives are all attorneys -- also reflects a trend specific to the 1992 election, believes Stephen Wayne, Georgetown University professor of government.

With President Bush and "the basic norms of American politics" in one corner, the Democrats need candidates whose very appeal lies in their being non-traditional, says Mr. Wayne.

"[Potential candidates] with spouses at home and beautiful kids and prep schools and Ivy League educations have opted out. They'll re-emerge in 1996," he says.

"In 1992, the 'outs' are 'in' and the 'ins' are 'out' " when it comes to Democratic candidates.

With divorce and delayed marriage so prevalent, political strategists believe that single status will have little impact on the candidates' success, at least in the early stages of the race.

"I don't think there will be much political price to pay for it," says Terry Michael, former communications director for Illinois Sen. Paul Simon's 1988 presidential campaign. "Most people see in their own lives, or in the lives of their family or neighbors, the same kind of thing."

But the issue may take on weight once a candidate gets close to the White House, they believe. Although several widowers found their way to the White House, only two never-married men -- Grover Cleveland, who married while in office, and lifelong bachelor James Buchanan -- were ever elected president.

"The president is the only official who is America," says Republican political consultant William Schneider. "The office has enormous emotional and symbolic importance. Even people who don't live in traditional nuclear families themselves may attach certain values to a traditional family and probably believe it's best."

A never-married candidate, as opposed to the divorced or widowed, may have particular problems convincing voters he understands family issues -- and ultimately getting elected as the country's "father figure," says Mr. Michael.

"When you get to the general election where the campaign is played out on the 7 o'clock news and the candidate doesn't have an adoring wife and three adorable children," he says, "that may have a subliminal effect on voters' attitudes."

Which is why bachelorhood may have a hand in defining the '92 campaign. Media consultants, for instance, are already scratching their heads for new ways to convey their candidate's belief in traditional family values.

You can't gather mom and the kids in front of the Christmas tree for the warm and fuzzy shot," says Democratic media consultant Michael Sheehan.

Instead of wives in family photos or at events, he adds, "you'll be seeing a lot of solos, a lot of parents and probably a lot of Labrador retrievers."

And obviously, you'll be seeing fewer wives -- the candidate's traditional No. 1 surrogate -- out there on the campaign trail, jetting from city to city with a stump speech as practiced and fervent as her husband's.

"Now it will be impossible to be in two places at the same time," says Mr. Sheehan.

But while the bachelor candidates may be minus a valuable resource -- and while parents, siblings and children may be pressed into action -- there's "no evidence" that the success of any candidate has ever "turned on having a spouse campaigning for them," says Mr. Michael.

And some believe a largely spouseless race could make for a more straightforward campaign. "What we'll see is our candidates out there alone, hopefully talking substance about issues that affect families rather than using their own families as props," says Ms. Grimes.

But whether the campaign is focused on substance or on the dating habits of these most eligible men depends largely on how seriously they're perceived as contenders as well as how they behave, say political observers.

"One wonders whether there will not be a feeding frenzy if one or more of these candidates starts doing well," says Mr. Sabato, whose book "Feeding Frenzy" examines media coverage of politics. "There may be an irresistible urge to investigate past and present relationships."

Indeed, all three bachelor Dems have provided food for the feed with their relationships with glamorous, high-profile women: Governor Wilder with wealthy divorced Virginia socialite Patricia Kluge (a combo that still elicits whispers and elbow-nudging); Senator Kerrey with actress Debra Winger (an on-again, off-again affair that he says is now a friendship), and Governor Brown with singer Linda Ronstadt (a relationship eclipsed in his 1976 presidential bid by other unorthodox elements of his campaign and persona.)

The public will expect to know who will play the role of first lady, says Democratic strategist Mike McCurry. Will Jerry Brown import his sister, California state Treasurer Kathleen Brown -- or will his one-time date, actress Anjelica Huston, show up on his arm?

Mr. Schneider believes these candidates will have to tread lightly in the dating arena. "What they don't want to do is call attention to it."

As governor, Mr. Wilder attends and hosts most official functions stag, or with one of his daughters. Senator Kerrey enlisted a safe surrogate -- his ex-wife -- to round out the family picture as he kicked off his campaign this week, and told interviewers he was "good friends" with Ms. Winger.

'We're just good friends' will be the dominant answer," says Mr. Sheehan. "These candidates will try to bore it over -- make [their personal lives] a really boring discussion."

Ironically, in this post-Gary Hart era, some believe that the singlguys may arouse less scrutiny than their married counterparts. At a recent press breakfast, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who's expected to declare his candidacy today, brought out his wife of 16 years, Hillary, to try to quash rumors of infidelity.

And the unattached may reap other advantages as well, gaining the edge in a "semi-glamorous way," says political strategist Carter Eskew. "The idea of a White House wedding might thrill a lot of people. It would be the closest thing we'd have to a royal wedding."

Perhaps even more thrilling to some would be a single president with no wedding plans at all. Says Mr. McCurry, "It would give new meaning to the term 'Washington's most eligible bachelor.' "

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad