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Rockefeller May Have Missed His Chance

YES, I really thought Jay Rockefeller would run. Virginia's Governor Douglas Wilder told the Monitor breakfast group the other day that he "knew" Rockefeller wouldn't run - that the West Virginia senator had told him so back in late March at the Gridiron Dinner.Well, I'm sure Wilder thought he was hearing this. And it certainly is in line with Rockefeller's final and, to most political observers, surprising decision not to make the race. But my own private communications with the senator and those close to him indicated that right up to his recent announcement he was struggling mightily with what he should do. In fact, I thought he was leaning strongly toward running. He felt he had a lot to say: about the need for better health care, improved education, and a cleaner environment. He seemed ready to go to the nation with an appealing agenda for solving domestic problems. I also know that shortly before his announcement he met with that master political strategist, Hamilton Jordan, in Knoxville, Tenn. I understand that Jordan encouraged Rockefeller to run but said it was important to have his wife, Sharon, who heads WETA-TV, on board with him. Jordan also told this latter-day "Rocky" that even though he probably would lose this time around, the effort could give him the visibility and positive image needed to shape a victory in 1996. Indeed, it sounded as though the Jimmy Carter people would support Rockefeller. They believe that to win the presidency the Democrats must pick someone from the South and that Rockefeller's West Virginia base would qualify him politically as being from that region. So what did Rockefeller do? He appeared to ponder and ponder, finally approaching the decision in a way that caused most of us to think he was running. And then he stunned us (except, perhaps, Mr. Wilder) by stepping back. And why? Well, one explanation comes from those close to Rockefeller who say that wife Sharon was supporting a "go" decision but that a column by political sage David Broder unsettled the senator. Commenting on Rockefeller's "late start," Broder wrote that the Senator "has barely begun to examine the implications of past policy positions in the national arena he may be about to enter.... He has time to prepare himself for all that lies ahead - but not much." That last sentence haunted Rockefeller, it seems. When he dropped out he said he didn't have the time to prepare himself for taking over the presidency. Perhaps it simply was that Rockefeller decided some of his policy positions might not play well in Democratic primaries. But if he wanted a detailed plan on just about everything he would need to do and say - in his campaign and then in setting up his administration - he could have turned to Jordan for help. Jordan provided such help for Jimmy Carter (although Carter never lacked confidence that he could run just about anything), and he could have done it for Rockefeller. What's interesting to me is how influential a columnist's observations may have been - even though I'm confident that Broder never intended to weaken Rockefeller's resolve. Politicians do listen to Broder - probably more than to any other journalist on the American scene. He's earned their respect. Other columnists have also been highly influential. For example, Walter Lippmann's apparent opposition to Senator John F. Kennedy was viewed by many politicians at that time as an impediment to Kennedy's quest for the presidency. Lippmann had written that a presidential candidate should have had the experience of running something - preferably a state government - before taking over the White House. Later on in the 1960 campaign Lippmann dropped these reservations about Kennedy, who had had only legislative experience, causing a sign of relief in the Kennedy camp. Rockefeller, a former governor, would come up to the Lippmann requirement. Anyway, whatever Rockefeller's reason for not making the race, I thought he would run and, probably, should run. You run when the "moon is high," and the moon is high for a politician when your party wants you to run and needs you. A Rockefeller candidacy was, indeed, desired by many Democrats at a time when so few of the party's leaders were willing to take on the formidable George Bush. In 1996, when Bush has disappeared from the political arena and Dan Quayle or some other potentially vulnerable GOP opponent is in line for the nomination, the Democratic field will doubtless be crowded. There'll be no shortage of early announcements. So Rockefeller may have missed his big chance.

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