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Weekly Alibi Time to Take Sides?

Democratic Prez Hopefuls Already Eyeing New Mexico and the Nation

By Jack Moczinski

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  I'm usually the last to enter into the prediction pool for the 2000 presidential race. However, I have to admit that the much ballyhooed matchup in the Democratic Primary between Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt could live up to its billing.

Al Gore is the heir apparent to the Clinton presidency, and Richard Gephardt is the Democratic voice of the U.S. House of Representatives and its last lefty holdout. Both politicians have assembled armies of campaigners in their respective branches of government in preparation for a battle royale.

With the 1996 post-election departure of many Clinton loyalists from their jobs in Washington, D.C., Al Gore saw to it that White House and other federal job openings were filled with Gore supporters. The White House press and political operations are working overtime to give exposure to the vice president by giving him every opportunity to stand in for the president. After the 1998 elections, in preparation for the Gore for President campaign, White House workers and Federal employees will probably leave their positions and start campaigning around the nation.

Gephardt has done the same in his bailiwick. Because he's the highest ranking Democrat in the House, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) are filled with Gephardt team members. Through their capacities as DNC and DCCC staffers, they are learning about the political workings of every state, and Gephardt himself will work hard for Democratic candidates around the nation in 1998.

Both political all-star campaign teams are ready to go. The political posturing and tit-for-tat between the two men is growing. Undoubtedly, the recent fundraising scandal involving Al Gore and the Buddhist Monks in Los Angeles has Gephardt's mouth watering. You don't see Gephardt exactly leading the fight to defend the vice president's integrity. Gore, in the same vein, doesn't spend his time in the capitol helping out Gephardt.

More than the rivalry between these two Democrats, the battle surrounds basic debates about the direction of the Democratic Party for the 21st century. Gore, like Clinton, is a follower of the Democratic Legislative Committee (DLC), a think tank that represents conservative democrats and promotes issues like the balanced budget, free trade and reforming the welfare system.

Dick Gephardt represents a very different ideological side to the Democratic Party. He's holding onto the last vestiges of the traditional Democratic left. Gephardt's party is the party of the working man, the disadvantaged and still believes in the helping hand of government. But Gephardt's position is the most tenuous of the two. Gephardt's gloom and doom message can only fly if the current economic bliss and good times end.

The battle lines are clear, and the Democratic Party Presidential primary will be a test of the future ideological direction of the party. Out here in traditionally Democratic New Mexico, the candidates are staking their claims. Gephardt recruits many Democratic Congressional candidates in the area and visited in the spring to support the failed candidacy of Eric Serna for the Third Congressional District. Al Gore has almost made New Mexico his second home, at times making more than three trips here a year. Gore's hoping to increase his popularity in the West, which is one reason why his environmentalism has waned over the last four years.

Gephardt and Gore will be heavily involved in New Mexico Democratic political affairs during the 1998 elections, especially by lending financial support to candidates. Their political experts will watch the trends in New Mexico to determine how their candidates should approach the state in 2000. With all this planning, one must ask, is it worth it? To these men, it is, and it remains their true desire.

However, we've seen the candidacies of Ted Kennedy in 1976 and Gary Hart in 1988, which show desire and preparation don't mean a thing in a primary process where there are no guarantees. Gephardt and Gore may be too ripe politically for voters, who may choose a fresher face like U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley or Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh. Time will tell. For now, though, New Mexicans should watch how the coy political machinations of these men play out in our own state.

--Jack Moczinski


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