"Electability." The first time I really thought about that word was back in January of 1960, when I was having lunch somewhere along the presidential-primary trail (could it have been in Madison, Wis.?) with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and Democratic National Chairman Paul Butler.
There had been no greater supporters of Adlai Stevenson than these two men. But now they were telling me they had shifted their allegiance to John F. Kennedy. I was incredulous. "Why, why?" I asked. Because, they both said, they had come to the conclusion after Mr. Stevenson's two unsuccessful tries for the presidency (1952 and 1956) that he was "unelectable" - and that Mr. Kennedy might well win in 1960.
I mentioned this lunch to Mr. Schlesinger when he was a guest at a recent Monitor breakfast. He didn't recall the lunch, but he did remember his (very reluctant) shift from Stevenson to Kennedy. He said he had written to Stevenson to explain what he was doing and why.
And so it is that even the most fervent and loyal of supporters will pull away from a candidate if they think he can't win and that there is another acceptable candidate who could.
I write this because I think I'm perceiving at least the beginning of a show of political pragmatism of this nature in the Democratic presidential race. By looking at the numbers (Bill Bradley's catching up with Gore in the New Hampshire primary) and the raising of money (Mr. Bradley has been outdoing Mr. Gore in fund-raising of late) one can sense that at least some Democrats who like Gore a lot have decided he may be unelectable and are moving over to Bradley.
A prime consideration in the voter's mind is whether the candidate is electable. Of course, the first consideration is whether he or she is qualified. But the potential for winning - that must be there.
I recall the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Stevenson had permitted his name to be put up in nomination for president. Then two of the Democrats' favorite people - Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy - made impassioned nominating speeches for Stevenson. This was followed by the most tumultuous and sustained outpouring of yells, cheers, and affection that has come forth from a convention floor since Wendell Wilkie was nominated in 1940. Most of the delegates at the Los Angeles convention had been won by Kennedy during the primaries. Yet, at least for a little while, we in the press thought we saw these delegates leaving Kennedy for their old political love, Adlai of Illinois.
After a lengthy period of absolute bedlam, the crowd finally quieted down. And then - facing the realities of electability - the delegates, after giving their loudest yells to Stevenson, gave their votes to Kennedy and nominated him.
Actually, it's foolhardy to predict a possible rejection of Gore - even if a growing number of Democrats may be wondering whether he has the stuff to win in November. And even if Bradley makes a surprisingly good showing in the Iowa caucuses and beats Gore in New Hampshire, the primaries soon shift to the South where the Tennessean should be able to recover and then rebound.
Also, while Stevenson was a two-time loser when supporters moved over to Kennedy, Gore has a long record as a winner. That in itself should help discourage mass defections from the vice president as he reaches out for the White House.
But I still think it's worth noting that there is a growing uneasiness among many Democrats over having Gore as their candidate. They look at the personable George W. and John McCain and wonder whether their man could beat either of them - and whether Bradley might be more electable.
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