Declaring Their Intentions

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the early handicapping for the '88 presidential race, Bruce Babbitt rates as a man whose campaign style is perfect in all regards save one. As his fervent supporters tell it, the former Arizona governor is bright, analytical and decisive. In the vital area of public speaking, however, Babbitt is only so-so. He is undaunted by alleged charisma deficiency: "You can go about being a candidate in two ways," says Babbitt, 48. "You can put your finger in the wind and just read the Tele-PrompTer. Or you can take a few risks, be yourself and see if sometimes kites fly highest against the wind."

Babbitt is an unconventional Democrat who would fly against the prevailing wind by taking incongruous positions. He would, for example, tinker with the sacred Social Security system by raising the taxes and taxing employer-paid medical benefits. He's a Catholic who is pro choice on abortion, a populist who speaks of the limits of government and a Westerner with Eastern polish. "He's not concerned with saying or doing the popular thing as much as the right thing," says his wife, Hattie, 40, a trial lawyer.

This stubborn character trait has been turned into a high-risk campaign strategy. "I've just got to be who I am and do what I do," he says.

Despite his reputed indifference to the attentions of the image-makers, the 6'4" tall, lanky, straight-talking Babbitt has been making those unmistakable moves that mark a would-be President. He is spending up to three days a week in Iowa, site of the crucial first caucuses of the 1988 race, and aides are coaching him with his speaking style to fire up his somnolent delivery.

No one doubts Babbitt's substance or the streak of noblesse oblige that led him into politics. He is the second oldest of six children born into one of Arizona's most prominent families. His grandfather parlayed a grubstake into a retail and ranching empire that stretched from Kansas to California. Curiously, Sinclair Lewis titled his famous 1922 satirical novel about a middle-class businessman, Babbitt. Yet Bruce does not know whether the model came from his ancestors.

It was in 1961, while he was in Bolivia working as a geologist, that Babbitt experienced his revelatory moment. "I was struck by the contrast of being in the middle of political chaos and poverty, worrying about where the continent came from," he says. People replaced rocks in his universe. Babbitt had degrees from Notre Dame and a British university. But he went back to school for a law degree from Harvard and was swept up in the social activism of the times. Bruce marched in Selma in 1965 and joined VISTA, the antipoverty program.

In 1966 he met Harriet (Hattie) Coons, a University of Texas undergrad. "I spotted him in an airport lounge," she recalls, "and figured he was my type." They were married three years later and have two sons, Christopher, 11, and T.J. (Thomas), 9.

In 1967 Babbitt returned to Arizona, joined a law firm, and, moving into politics, became an aggressive attorney general. On March 4,1978, when the caretaker governor died in office, Babbitt, Arizona's next highest elected official, awoke to find himself the state's chief executive. "I viewed it as a baby-kissing job I didn't want," he says. "But you learn to play the hand that's dealt." He ended up serving two terms in the staunchly Republican state, pushing through innovative environmental and educational reforms and substantially increasing his majority on reelection.

Critics view Babbitt as a presidential long shot with no power base, who lacks the showmanship to captivate voters. Soft-spoken Hattie bristles at such talk. "Bruce may drop the end of his sentences, but he won't drop the ball when he's running the country."

THE BAY STATE PUTS UP ITS DUKE

Although he is in his third term as Governor of Massachusetts, Michael S. Dukakis, 53, is still a man of domesticated habits. He does the family's grocery shopping ("I pass the high prices and go for the specials")-In the front yard of his Brookline home—the de facto Governor's mansion since the state provides none—he tends a 15-by-20 foot vegetable patch in season. He insists on dinner at home at 6, and on Sundays he's apt to do the cooking. "I like to make stews and chowder," he says. "My family humors me."

Dukakis (just "Mike" or "the Duke" to Bay Staters) recognizes that his rooted ways are in for a change now that he's seeking the presidential nomination. "I know this is a long shot," he says of his chances, "but if you head down this road and succeed, you have to realize that life will never be the same."

Can he do it? "He has as good a chance as any of the other little guys to break out," says Washington-based Democratic political consultant Harrison Hickman. "He's well-liked by his fellow governors." Still, says Hickman, "I don't think he's someone they'll go out and risk their careers for—if they think Dukakis can be President, they probably think they can too."

Dukakis' handlers(including John Sasso, who spearheaded Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential campaign) hope to capitalize on his reputation as the man who rescued Massachusetts from the economic mire of the mid-'70s: If he can convince voters that he can do the same for the nation, Dukakis could make a strong showing in the Democratic primaries.

No one has to remind Dukakis of the perils of politics. In his first term in office, he was unable to keep his pledge to hold off a tax increase. Accused of arrogance, he was rejected by his own party in its 1978 primary in favor of conservative Edward King. "I was 50 points ahead at the start; I really blew it," Dukakis admits. "It was the most painful thing that has ever happened to me." He salved his wounds by teaching government at Harvard before making a stunning comeback in 1982 and underscoring his vindication with a landslide reelection last fall.

In his second administration, Massachusetts has seen what Dukakis' backers call an "economic miracle," fueled by its booming high-tech industries. It boasts the lowest unemployment rate (3.8 percent last year) among top industrial states, and its welfare employment program is touted as a national model. And the Governor has recorded five tax cuts in the past four years.

Critics question whether Dukakis is the main architect or merely the chief political beneficiary of restored prosperity. Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a longtime foe, charges that co-opting credit is a typical Duke move: "He's a politician who will do anything, say anything, be anything to get elected," she claims.

Supporters, however, say nothing tugs more strongly at Dukakis than his sense of family roots and stability: The Boston suburb of Brookline—the birthplace of John F. Kennedy—has been his home all his life. From his Greek immigrant parents, Panos (a physician who died in 1979) and Euterpe (a onetime high school teacher) came a sense that "much has been given to you, much is expected of you." Mike and older brother Stelian lived that philosophy—in Mike's case through sports (track) and academic honors at Swarthmore and Harvard Law.

In 1963 he married fellow Brookline resident Kitty Dickson, now 50, daughter of Boston Pops associate conductor Harry Ellis Dickson. Along with a law practice, Dukakis went into politics, starting at town meetings and winding up in the state legislature. He established his liberal credentials by championing consumer and environmental issues, and his reformist zeal intensified with a family tragedy: In 1973 Stelian was struck by a hit-and-run driver and died after four months in a coma. The motorist was never apprehended, but "I always assumed the guy who hit him was on alcohol or drugs," says Mike, who has been unyielding on his views on drunk driving and traffic safety ever since.

The Dukakis family (including 83-year-old Euterpe, who campaigns for him) is solidly behind him in his try for the White House. Son John, 29 (by Kitty's first marriage—he has taken the Dukakis name), and daughters Andrea, 21, a Princeton student, and Kara, 18, on leave from Brown, will help boost him along the campaign trail. Even if he doesn't make it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the Duke says serenely, "This will be educational."

AN EAGLE SCOUT FROM MISSOURI WINS PEERS' PRAISE

It's 5:30 Monday morning, and as usual Rep. Richard A. Gephardt is on his way. Dressed in a blue suit, crisp white shirt and regimental tie, not a strand of razor-cut red hair out of place, the six-term Congressman from Missouri is off to Washington's National Airport, bound for another day's politicking in Iowa. The first among the Democrats to make his White House hopes official, Gephardt already has made the Iowa commute 40 times since 1985. He knows a decent showing in that state's caucuses will be crucial if he is to be considered a serious national candidate.

At 46, Gephardt is almost a central-casting version of the earnest, erstwhile Boy Scout determined to make it to the White House by dint of hard work. A moderate with the ruddy good looks of a Tom Sawyer and a bio that reads like a Horatio Alger story, he is a tireless campaigner who is well liked by his peers in the House—85 (nearly 20 percent) have already pledged to support his presidential bid. He boasts the requisite loyal spouse (Jane, 44), three photogenic offspring and a relentlessly positive attitude. Never mind that in a national poll he culled just 1 percent support; his campaign fund pulled in $1 million during the week of his Feb. 23 announcement, and he's pressing the flesh for all he's worth. "I'm unknown," he allows. "It will take time and effort, but that's the way I am. I start earlier, stay later and work harder than anybody." That bench-press strategy might just pay off: Political consultants like Republicans Lee Atwater see Gephardt as the favorite dark horse Democrat. "Right now Gephardt is the man to watch," he says.

To hear it from the home folks in St. Louis, Gephardt has been preparing for the Presidency since his days as a freckle-faced striver in a Cardinals baseball cap. The second son of Loreen and Louis Gephardt (whose grandparents were German immigrants), he was fascinated by politics even as a teenager. By the time he enrolled in Northwestern University—where he was freshman class vice-president and president of both his fraternity and the student senate—there was little doubt about Gephardt's political abilities. Even his first meeting with his future wife, Jane Byrnes, occurred on a public stage: As part of a welcome-to-campus contingent, he and his frat brothers met the train that she and a host of other freshmen women arrived on in 1960. "He grabbed my suitcase," Nebraska-born Jane remembers, "and it opened, scattering clothes, shoes, lingerie all over the gutter."

Despite the screen-romance meeting, they never courted as undergraduates. He went on to the University of Michigan Law School, going home to St. Louis often to work for the reelection of Sen. Stuart Symington. "A friend told me Jane was living in Chicago," Dick says. "I called and we started dating long distance." The two married in 1966, and from the start Jane accepted her husband's political ambitions. "I knew he would run for Congress," she says, "though I didn't know he would run for President this soon."

A near tragedy in 1972 advanced the Gephardt timetable: Their first-born, then 19 months, was found to have a potentially fatal cancer of the prostate and bladder. Matt recovered, but the experience shook his parents. "It gave us new perspective," Jane says. "There is a sense of urgency to do things today because you may not be here tomorrow."

As a practicing attorney from 1965 to 1976, Gephardt's pre-Congress resume included precinct committeeman and alderman and no electoral losses. He arrived on Capitol Hill in 1977, where he was taken intow by fellow Missouri Rep. Richard Boiling, whom Gephardt calls "my mentor." The freshman promptly earned a reputation as a politically astute achiever with a solid legislative record. The 1982 Bradley-Gephardt bill helped pave the way for federal tax reform; the 1984 Kennedy-Gephardt bill sought ways to overhaul Medicare financing; the 1986 Harkin-Gephardt bill, recently reintroduced, aims to limit crop production in hopes of saving family farms. By 1984 Gephardt headed the House Democratic Caucus and began to regard the Presidency as "something I wanted to do."

Political observers say that if Gephart has a weakness, it is in his too-good-to-be-true mien—and he has been called to task for overdoing his humble-origins theme. (His campaign literature presents his father as a "milk truck driver"—which he was, in the years before he became a successful real estate salesman.) And like most unknowns he faces the formidable job of establishing a distinctive political personality that will promote instant voter recognition. But the slings and arrows will come later: For now, Gephardt is running as hard as he can—sounding for all the world like the boy who won the God and Country award as an Eagle Scout in St. Louis, Mo.

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