WASHINGTON -- Ordinarily, the minor flap over President Clinton's endorsement of Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia for re-election next year would be written off as so much inside baseball.
Sitting presidents don't usually choose up sides in intraparty fights, so some eyebrows were raised. But it was also true that Chuck Robb is a longtime political ally of Clinton who has stuck with him this year not only on economic issues but the awkward question of gays in the military.
To no one's surprise, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who plans to challenge Robb, reacted with some calculated outrage at what he saw as proof that (1) the party establishment favors Robb and (2) Robb has sold out to Clinton by voting for his tax increases. But everybody in politics knows that Wilder can be an extremely prickly politician.
In this case, however, the rhubarb is being taken seriously by Democratic professionals to whatever extent it gives Doug Wilder more ammunition in an intraparty struggle that could very well cost their party a critical seat next year.
What is becoming increasingly clear about 1994 is that the Democrats are in a dicey enough position in maintaining their hold on the Senate that there is little or no margin for mistakes. A Republican Senate for the last two years of Clinton's term could hamstring the first Democratic president in 12 years. And even a reduced Democratic majority might make it extremely difficult for Clinton to function effectively.
The Democrats now control the Senate 56-44, down one seat since Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison won a special election in Texas last month. But the de facto majority bloc is 55 votes at best; one Democrat, Richard Shelby of Alabama, has voted consistently with the Republicans on key issues all year. And, as the president learned when Vice President Al Gore's tiebreaking vote was needed on his economic plan, even that majority is anything but solid.
The problem is that Robb, plagued by his feud with Wilder and questions about his personal life, is by no means the only vulnerable Democrat running next year. On the contrary, it appears that at least six and perhaps seven of the 21 seats held by Democrats now will be at least highly competitive next year, compared with only two or three of those held by Republicans.
The two most obvious Democratic vulnerabilities are the seats now held by Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, who is retiring, and Harlan Mathews of Tennessee, who was appointed as a seatwarmer to replace Gore but has been hedging on whether he plans to step aside as originally planned. Political pros in both parties also can make persuasive cases that the list of endangered Democrats should include Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Don Riegle of Michigan and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey as well as Robb.
By contrast, the only Republican seats that appear equally vulnerable are those of John Danforth of Missouri, who is retiring, and David Durenberger of Minnesota, embroiled in ethics charges.
The Democratic trepidation right now is heightened by the spectacle of Bob Krueger of Texas, who had been appointed to replace Lloyd Bentsen, not only losing to Hutchison but losing by a staggering two to one margin in a race that the Republican turned increasingly into a referendum on President Clinton and his economic program. The message was clear that unless Clinton gets a grip on the economic issue, 1994 can be a Democratic disaster.
The outlook on the Senate may change radically and frequently over the next several months. The issues on the front burner almost surely will change, and so will the cast of characters. There may be other retirements or the emergence of surprisingly strong challengers to incumbents of either party. If Clinton bounces back, some of those who seem vulnerable now may be unassailable. And there are always surprises that, by definition, cannot be anticipated a year ahead of time. Senators from small states are particularly vulnerable to upsets.
But the prospect right now is for a Senate campaign that can have a great deal to say about Clinton's ability to succeed in his final two years. And that is why even a minor flap over the president's endorsement of Chuck Robb is being taken seriously these days.