WASHINGTON -- Running for president, perennial White House hopefuls like to think, is like the song says about love -- better the second time around. It takes at least one trot around the track, they say optimistically, to discover the potholes and learn how to do it right. They cite successful repeater candidates like Richard Nixon, who won the presidency on his second try, Ronald Reagan (on his third) and George Bush (on his second).
So it's not surprising that more than three and a half years before the next presidential election, such Republican loser candidates the 1996 cycle as Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander and failed vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp are all back on the track already, visiting the usual political watering holes. On the // Democratic side, too, once-beaten Dick Gephardt is giving all signs of planning to try again in 2000.
But the mere running for president bestows few brownie points on our politicians. Bob Dole took his third shot at the presidency last year and came up empty again. Not only that, his ineffective campaign saw him make many of the same mistakes that had plagued his first two runs, including a stump style that sounded more like a congressional committee chairman in a legislative markup session than a future president.
The last three successful repeaters benefited in their elections to the presidency as much by the weaknesses of their opponents as by their prior campaign experience they had acquired in their earlier losing quests.
Beneficiaries of weakness
Although Nixon in 1968 did learn from the mistakes of his overly frenetic first try in 1960 and slowed down, he did have the Democratic split between establishment candidate Hubert Humphrey and the anti-Vietnam war crowd to help him squeak through.
Reagan in 1980 had a hostage-embattled and inflation-plagued Jimmy Carter going for him, and Bush in 1988, wrapped in the Reagan mantle, lucked out in running against the hapless Mike Dukakis.
More often than not, however, presidential candidates who lose and try again find that whatever bloom they had the first time around seems to fade with familiarity. Witness Ross Perot, who fell from an impressive 19 percent of the vote in 1992 to 8.5 percent in 1996 despite pumping more millions of his own money into creating a new party as a vehicle for his rerun.
The same fate may befall Mr. Forbes, who is back working conservative Republican precincts, still singing his johnny-one-note flat-tax aria, for which voters gave him the hook in the GOP primaries a year ago.
Instead of bashing Senator Dole as he did then, Mr. Forbes is going after House Speaker Newt Gingrich for heretical behavior on tax cuts, but he's still relying essentially on the same one note that got him nowhere last year.
Mr. Alexander, who failed in 1996 posing as a Washington outsider in spite of his history as a former cabinet member, is holding million-dollar fund-raising dinners and trotting out to Iowa saying he learned a lot from his first defeat.
To thunderous indifference
One of the things he says he learned was that voters and the news media don't pay much attention to presidential candidates until the caucuses and primaries begin. Yet here he is, three and a half years before the next election, out on the campaign trail anyway.
Mr. Kemp, who in 1996 eschewed a second try for the Republican presidential nomination after getting nowhere in his 1980 bid, apparently had his interest rekindled by his short re-entry as Mr. Dole's running mate. But he didn't seem to learn very much from his first presidential race, proving as the GOP veep wannabe to be as maddeningly loquacious and statistics-captive as ever.
Potomac Fever obviously retains its potency and defeat continues to be a poor deterrent to trying again. The political resurrection of Nixon remains an inspiration to any politician who refuses to say uncle, and once again there will be no shortage of them.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 4/14/97