Democrat's stretch drive in Pa. could give party a horse to ride in '92


PHILADELPHIA -- What Harris Wofford is doing to Richard L. Thornburgh these days is the stuff of presidential nightmares.

The little-known Democrat is poised to knock off a big-name Republican in the sort of political David-and-Goliath scenario that must haunt the worst dreams of George Bush.

Mr. Wofford has overcome a 44-percentage-point lead in the polls by Mr. Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general, to make Tuesday's U.S. Senate race too close to call.

Win or lose, he already has produced one major achievement: His campaign is helping to shape the national political debate for 1992. He has presented Democrats with a slate of issues that could get them out of their decade-long doldrums -- "middle-class concerns," such as jobs, health care, taxes and the environment.

"Certainly, it's a laboratory for some issues that Democrats might effectively use, and they certainly will if Wofford comes close or actually wins," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Harrisburg.

Mr. Wofford's campaign has largely been shaped by James Carville, an aggressive strategist from Louisiana who is known as "the ragin' Cajun" and who, as a political consultant, boasts a string of long-odds gubernatorial victories.

"The last two ideas I can remember a Democratic presidential candidate having were 'Come home from Vietnam' and 'Raise taxes,' " Mr. Carville said.

"Hopefully, in 1992 the Democratic candidates will talk about what is happening to the middle class, health care, American competitiveness," he said. "If they do that in an interesting way, they will be successful."

Mr. Wofford describes it a little differently: "I am being turned into a messenger from Pennsylvania to tell Washington it is looking at things upside-down.

"I think the message to the country which the Democrats ought to take is that it is time to take care of our own people, our own problems and with the will, with the energy and with the imagination which we apply to overseas challenges."

Perhaps as unsettling to Mr. Bush's political peace of mind is another portent from the campaign: Mr. Thornburgh stands accused of lacking precise policies, just as Mr. Bush's critics charge him with lacking a domestic agenda.

"There is virtually no specific plan or program from the Thornburgh camp," Mr. Madonna said. "His strategy has been: 'I have a 40-point lead. I am well-known. I was a popular governor. Trust me. I'll represent Pennsylvania well.' "

That has enabled Mr. Wofford to focus anti-Washington sentiment on Mr. Thornburgh's long record and high profile, although he himself is the incumbent senator, a fact two out of three Pennsylvania voters were unaware of when the campaign began in August after Mr. Thornburgh resigned as attorney general.

Mr. Wofford, state secretary of labor at the time, was appointed to the Senate in May by Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey to replace John Heinz, a Republican senator who was killed in a plane crash in April.

Mr. Thornburgh has criticized Mr. Wofford's "invisible incumbent" approach, saying the senator has "run away from his record."

The Wofford record, the Republican reminds voters, includes being part of the state administration that imposed the highest tax increase in state history, opposing U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf war and voting against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

"In my opinion, he is a tax-and-spend liberal whose role model in the U.S. Senate is Ted Kennedy," Mr. Thornburgh told supporters.

The Wofford camp counters that Mr. Thornburgh's own record as attorney general was "abysmal" and that, lacking programs of his own, he has seized on theirs.

As the contest has tightened, the tactics have become increasingly negative. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial cartoon showing a mud-covered Mr. Wofford beside a mudslinging Mr. Thornburgh who was saying, "My opponent appears to be a sleaze ball."

Mr. Thornburgh defends his tactics, saying, "I will give as good as I get. I reserve the right to do that. Dick Thornburgh is no patsy."

A Kennedy-style liberal

Harris Wofford is an unlikely standard-bearer for the Democrats in the 1990s. He is an unreconstructed, 1960s-style Kennedy liberal, a former adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an early leader in the Peace Corps.

"There has been a far falling-off from the Washington of John F. Kennedy that I went to [as special assistant to the president]," Mr. Wofford said. "I see Washington today as full of complacent people who have been there too long."

Driving his campaign is a conviction that the two mainstream parties have become stratified -- the Republicans with the rich and the Democrats with the poor -- leaving the middle class neglected.

For him, the national health crisis is not an issue of the poor and the uninsured. "It is the 75 percent of Americans who are afraid they will get sick and be dumped [from health benefits]. It is the 30 percent of Americans who are afraid to change jobs because of [possibly losing] health insurance. This is a middle-class issue," he said.

"The fact is, we have a health crisis that is bankrupting workers, families, our companies, our whole economy," he said at a news conference at Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton this week.

Dolores Trinity, whose husband took early retirement after open-heart surgery, said she liked what she heard from Mr. Wofford on health insurance. "It gets pretty disgusting when you see all the people who have run out of work and are not getting benefits, who are losing their health benefits -- and that's right in my own family," she said.

To protect U.S. jobs, Mr. Wofford has opposed fast-track trade treatment for Mexico and most-favored-nation status for China. It is a stance intended to appeal to conservative Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan, whose votes he needs to win.

Mr. Wofford has been endorsed by the state's two major daily newspapers, the Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Press.

Republican among Democrats

Dick Thornburgh is not fazed by being the former front-runner in a neck-and-neck race.

"In a heavily Democratic state, if a Republican wins it's going to be by a small margin," he reasoned.

He points to his record: the state's budget surplus after his governorship, lower state taxes, 15,000 jobs cut from the bureaucracy but 500,000 created in private industry and what he says is Pennsylvania's ranking as the state with the third-largest high-tech industry, after California and Massachusetts.

"I have done it before as governor of this commonwealth, as attorney general of the United States, and I can do it again -- will do it," he told 100 campaign activists this week at a morale-boosting meeting in Chester County outside Philadelphia.

That approach sits well with voters such as William Sweeney, a registered Democrat in blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania, a hotly contested conservative area.

"He's more experienced in local affairs. I liked him as governor. We didn't have too much tax rate when he was in, not like it is today," Mr. Sweeney said.

The Thornburgh campaign has emphasized creation of jobs and tax cuts to get "the money out of the hands of the bureaucracy, which always thinks it can spend and spend better than we can."

He rejected the notion that the Senate race is a blueprint for the national debate, saying, "What this is a referendum on is Pennsylvania voters' feelings on local taxes and more jobs. That's my record, that's my platform, and I think it's going to be the issue that carries us."

Senate Contenders

Harris Wofford

Born: New York City, April, 1929.

Educated: University of Chicago, Yale Law School and Howard University.

Status: Married, three children.

Career: Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy, 1961; Peace Corps 1962-66; President College at Old Westbury, State University of New York 1966-70; President Bryn Mawr College 1970-78; Chairman Pennsylvania Democratic Party, 1986; Pennsylvania secretary of labor 1987-91; Appointed U.S. Senate, Dick Thornburgh

Born: Pittsburgh, Pa., July, 1932.

Educated: Yale University, University of Pittsburgh Law School.

Status: Married, four children.

Career: Attorney in corporate and private practice; U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania 1969-75; assistant U.S. Attorney General 1975-77; governor of Pennsylvania 1978-86; director Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University 1986-87; U.S. Attorney General 1988-91.

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