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Democrats ask less, `What's he for?' than, `Can he win?' CAMPAIGN '88

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You won't even find the word in the dictionary, but ``electability'' is the hot topic in the Democratic race for president. Having lost four of the last five presidential elections, the Democratic Party is flooded with pragmatism, observers say. The party's No. 1 criterion when examining a candidate is, ``Can he win?''

``The candidates are trying to make the argument that win-ability in November is the key factor,'' says Peter Fenn, president of Fenn & King Communications, a firm specializing in media consulting. ``The question now is not the next week's primary, but November.''

``The Democrats tend to look longer and harder at the whole electability issue [this year] because they want to win in November,'' agrees Democratic consultant William Sweeney. (Illinois primary coverage tomorrow.)

For the Democrats, ``positioning'' may be the key to success. In a race where the issue distinctions between Democratic candidates must be measured in microns rather meters, a candidate's image as a ``national candidate'' will count for a lot.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr., wants voters to think that Gov. Michael Dukakis is too liberal, and that Rep. Richard Gephardt's trade policy is too dangerous. Governor Dukakis, on the other hand, dismisses Senator Gore as a ``regional'' candidate not worthy of serious votes. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, has positioned himself above the fray, serving as a minister of the political peace.

Gore brought up the electability issue as one way to discount the early primary victories of Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Dukakis. At virtually every campaign stop he reminds voters of the party's many recent failures in seeking the White House.

``I offer an alternative,'' Gore said recently while campaigning in Illinois. ``Mike Dukakis offers the politics of the past - the same approach we used in 1972 and 1984 when we lost 49 out of 50 states. I offer the politics of the future.''

No other candidate, Gore argues, will be as successful in attracting Southern white males, who have moved to the Republican camp in recent presidential elections, back to the Democratic fold.

``The issue as to who can attract the voters who left us in 1984 or in 1980 is really very central,'' Mr. Sweeney says.

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