House of Cards

A conversation about the far-from-settled presidential field.

EVER SINCE HE helped to spearhead Jesse Jackson's campaign in 1988, Steve Cobble has been one of the Democratic Party's premier strategists and canniest head counters. Lately he has been working with Jackson in plotting for the 1996 Congressional races; I tracked him down shortly before Christmas at the national Rainbow headquarters in D.C. for a chat about the presidential field.

The media have anointed Bob Dole the Republican nominee before the first primary vote is cast. Is he as automatic as he's made out to be?

No, I don't think so. One of the interesting things this fall was the City Vote thing they did in conjunction with the local elections, and although it was little-noted, Dole ran fairly weak in that. In Arizona, where there will be a primary, Steve Forbes beat Dole in the Tucson vote--which is a testament to Forbes's money in part, but to Dole's weakness more than anything else. His claim to fame has always been that it's my turn and I can beat Clinton, and both those claims are problematic now. He's not beating Clinton, and he's endorsed this Bosnia thing. If anything goes wrong there, Gramm--who's sinking like a stone--and the others will rip him apart.

The guy who's gonna be there at the end, in my opinion, is Buchanan. The Republicans don't want to nominate him; he's a little much for their tastes, and he's not a free trader. But he's the closest to where the average Republican voter is. I also think Forbes has a chance to purchase some following. If Dole shows some weakness, they advance; if he shows a lot of weakness, it might help Lamar Alexander, because the party will have to look for a plausible alternative in the event of a Dole collapse. There's still enough of the party that simply won't accept Buchanan or Forbes.

I hear through the grapevine that Dole's got a porn video spot ready to go on Gramm over the financing of that movie. [In the mid-1970s Gramm invested $15,000 in a T&A movie project from the producers of drive-in epics such as Truck Stop Women.] The Christian Coalition controls the process in Iowa; that would do bad harm to Gramm.

How do you read the independent situation currently? There's the Gang of 7, featuring the likes of former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, Paul Tsongas, and Bill Bradley, and there's Perot again, and both are threatening to field candidates.

I would say one is silly and one is serious. As for the Gang of 7, their theory is that Bill Clinton is so far to the left and the Republicans are so far to the right that you need a candidate in the middle to split the difference. I find this so preposterous I don't even see why the press spends any time discussing it. If they made a case that the Democratic party is too far left, that's one thing. But the idea that Paul Tsongas has to find a candidate to split the difference between Clinton and Dole, that's ludicrous. If they put somebody in the field, it could hurt Clinton, but the premise is laughable.

Perot, on the other hand, is serious. Let's suppose this budget showdown goes on. We're having this Titanic struggle over what's really an $11 a month difference in Medicare premiums by 2002, but the press is making it out to be more than that, and Clinton appears to be benefiting. He has a Machiavellian situation on his hands. In the short run, he benefits from the standoff. In the long run, both sides see their negatives go up in this. That would bring in Perot. And Clinton would be helped by that; he can gain ground even by losing ground if it helps pull Perot into the race.

Perot has implied that he won't run himself, that he's in the market for a candidate to put at the top of his ticket. Could he bear to do that? Who besides Perot would fit there?

I think if he found somebody he thought could carry the weight, he might consider it. I lean more toward the Kevin Phillips argument, however: If he runs, he makes the history books. He's gonna spend all this money on his party; to institutionalize it, he needs to run. Second, if he does, he becomes the first third-party candidate to score in double figures twice in a row. That's something to have done, and it still doesn't require him to have any responsibilities.

If Powell had run as an independent, I think Perot would have just endorsed him. I think he would have won, too. By joining the Republican party, he made a huge tactical mistake. It takes away the independent aura that was his biggest strength. Now he's just another party hack doing battle for personal power; that's how people are going to regard him over the long run.

I could see [former Connecticut Governor Lowell] Weicker, I could see [former Oklahoma Senator] David Boren. Buchanan, I think, would rather go his own way. He could start his own party. I don't necessarily buy his argument that he won't run independently. I think he's reluctant. He doesn't want to be the guy who gets Clinton elected for another four years. If Buchanan did form a party, he'd want a fair-trade, right-to-life, America First party. Perot's people are much more secular and pro-choice. He might ask their endorsement, but I don't think he'd run on their line.

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