Challenging the president


A cast of characters is beginning to assemble for what might be a Democratic presidential contest. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey has announced he may run against President Clinton in the primaries.

A White House official labeled that announcement "insignificant," and that seems to be the conventional wisdom. Mr. Casey is famously anti-abortion, and as such he probably would be a one-issue candidate (despite his record as a good governor). There may or may not be enough pro-life Democrats to make a Casey candidacy interesting, but there are other considerations: Some pro-choice, anti-Clinton Democrats might be attracted to any candidate for whom they can cast a vote of no confidence in the president; and independent voters, and in some cases Republicans, can vote in Democratic primaries.

Enough to defeat the president? Probably not in any state in such a two-candidate showdown. But there may be other candidates. Jesse Jackson said in California last week that if Mr. Clinton "retreats on [affirmative action], there is no alternative but to open up the political process in the primary or general election." Rumors abound that other Democrats are considering -- or at least not ruling out -- challenging the president.

If the president were to take a one-two punch from left and right in his party, he would undoubtedly survive, but if history is any guide, he would be sorely wounded for the general election contest. Three times in the modern era, Democratic presidents were challenged for the nomination and either quit (1952 and 1968) or lost in November (1980). Only in 1964 did a primary challenge not presage defeat. (Republican presidents lost in 1976 and 1992 after unsuccessful primary challenges.)

Polls suggest that President Clinton has not, after two-plus years in office, substantially increased his support from the 43 percent he won in 1992's three-man race. He needs to reach out, which is difficult to do when being restrained by attacks from both sides. It is also difficult to do when his party seems to be engaged in narrowing rather than broadening its base. The Democratic National Committee recently sent out a fund-raising letter asking recipients if they wanted the president to run in 1996 -- and telling those who answered "no" they would be taken off the mailing list.

Perhaps the anti-Clinton mood has been fed by his relatively low profile during the 100 days of the Republican House of Representatives. Perhaps if he starts campaigning harder for his programs and ideas again when Congress becomes less the center of attention, he will in fact make a Casey challenge insignificant and a Jackson challenge unlikely.

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