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Leadership shortfall may be Democrats' biggest liability in 1982, 1984

The word being used by some observers here in describing the Democratic leadership position today is "bankrupt." Democratic politicians say that is too harsh. But they concede that the party is in decline and will be suffering further reverses in 1982 if a comeback effort isn't somehow put together.

The basic elements in the Democratic problem are these:

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* There is no effective Democratic spokesman who can respond to Reagan initiatives or thrusts at the opposition.

House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts is the top Democrat in Washington. He does provide his views on the Reagan administration. But Representative O'Neill is certainly not the titular head of his party. And his comments thus far have been competely overpowered by what Reagan has said or done.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts is a perennial candidate for president. But he and his words are no match for the President, particularly since there are a lot of Democrats who are definitely anti-Kennedy.

Former President Jimmy Carter is keeping hands-off of politics these days. And there is little evidence that Democratic state leaders want Mr. Carter to be the party's spokesman or would be supported of him if he tried to claim that position.

California Charles Manatt now takes over from John White as Democratic national chairman. But Mr. Manatt is more of a political craftsman than a political figure.

He may very well be making comments that will express the party view. But he simply isn't well enough known publicly to be effective in countering President Reagan.

* The Democrats also have precious few political leaders who, at this point anyway, look like they could be able to lead a charge back to the White House.

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Some Democratic leaders say that only a new, fresh face could provide the kind of leadership the party now needs for 1984.

California's Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. is looking toward another try at the presidency. But while still relatively young, Governor Brown has two losing presidential campaigns behind him. Today, Brown has lost much of his one-time political appeal.

West Virginia Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV is likely to bid for the presidency in 1984, Mr. Rockefeller definitely qualifies as a "fresh face." But he is flawed by a state campaign where he obviously overspent to win. Thus, "Jay" Rockefeller's first impact on the voters -- this spending splurge -- was a negative one.

Thus, the Democratic politicians who seem best positioned now to win the presidential nomination next time around -- Kennedy, Carter, and former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale -- seem like "tired faces," as some politicians would describe them.

And all three are flawed. The Kennedy problems, mainly personal, may still be with him -- despite a campaign last year where he hoped to put them behind him.

There is still some freshness in Mr. Mondale. But his close association witht he losing Carter campaign may well cause some Democrats to ask: Can Mondale now be a candidate on his own -- or might he always be viewed by the public as a Carter man?

Finally, there is Carter, who is pictured by observers in Georgia as spending too much of his time brooding these days -- blaming the press and disloyal political allies for some of the problem s that led to his defeat.

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