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Democrats' Ron Brown: Skipper of the Titanic?

THE message is coming through clear and strong: It's time for the Democrats to find another presidential candidate.

The problem is electability. Of the growing doubts among Democratic leaders about whether there's a winner next fall among the current field of candidates, party chairman Ron Brown puts it this way: "We're a nervous bunch. We want to win this. We want someone who can beat George Bush."

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At a Monitor breakfast several days ago Mr. Brown was peppered with questions that were zeroing in on this electability problem.

For much of the session Brown, who tried hard but was unable to change the subject to what he sees as the vulnerability of President Bush, was clearly on the defensive.

The focus was on Bill Clinton and Mario Cuomo. Paul Tsongas was hardly mentioned despite his upsurge - reflecting a widely held press assumption that this is his "15 minutes" in the sun and that will be the end of it. Among Washington's political observers one hears this assessment of Mr. Tsongas: "His candidacy doesn't have legs." They could, of course, be very wrong.

Hard questioning came early on what is known now as the "Clinton problem." One reporter put it this way:

"He may be as pure as the driven snow. But if he becomes a candidate I can see those shots on TV of George and Barbara out on the beach, hand in hand, walking into the sunset.

"I saw a poll the other day that showed that 14 percent of the public would vote against a presidential candidate who they thought had had extramarital relations. That's small - but a lot in a close presidential election. So doesn't Clinton have a problem of getting elected?"

"I don't know," the beleaguered party chairman responded rather lamely. "The voters will determine that." He added that he thought Mr. Clinton was a "good communicator" and that he believed that "the process is proceeding well."

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Accusations that Clinton had manipulated his Vietnam draft status - which have increased doubts about his electability - surfaced the day after the Brown breakfast.

At this point someone asked: "What of reports that Republicans have ordered hands off Clinton because if he is nominated he will be a push-over in November?"

"I think this is obvious," said Brown. "There has been evidence of Republican involvement in starting the story and spreading it. I can't give any chapter or verse on it. But it is clear that this is what has been happening."

Another questioner asked about the write-in campaign for Mario Cuomo.

Brown said he didn't take the write-in drive seriously. "I don't know any government leader who is seriously thinking of entering the race," he said. "These candidates out there are the ones. They are getting better every week. It takes the American people a little time to get to know candidates and feel comfortable with them."

The questioning moved back to Cuomo: "Cuomo people are saying that he still has the itch. You don't think he still has the itch?"

Brown: "No, I didn't say that at all. He may well have the itch. A lot of people may have the itch. It's a long way from having the itch and declaring you are going to run."

Questioner: "A long distance from the itch to the scratch?"

Brown: "Yes, I think that Governor Cuomo, as I've said from the beginning, if he decides to run, would be a formidable candidate. I have great respect and admiration for him."

Then came question after question on Clinton's alleged behavior problems. The reporters just wouldn't relent.

At one point Brown spoke of the highly contentious Democratic primaries as "strengthening us as a party and strengthening our eventual nominee." He clearly wasn't converting his listeners to this point of view. They kept barking away at him with questions that indicated they thought that just the opposite was happening.

Then someone asked about the talk on Capitol Hill: That House majority leader Dick Gephardt or Sen. Lloyd Bentsen now might get into the race.

"It's never too late for anybody to get in," said Brown. "We are not crippled if something unforeseen happens even a month from now. We can still work with the process, manipulate the process, to allow for those circumstances to be dealt with." He added: "It's nothing that I expect."

Reporters talking about Brown's comments afterward were making an assessment along this line: That here was a party chairman who was not at all happy with a process that had labored mightily and now looked like it might give birth to someone who was not electable.

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