Gops, Look Out! The Democrats' Atwater

He's a Southern good ole boy, a political consultant with a hell raiser's reputation and an inborn feel for the fears of the middle class. His campaigns are as nasty as he can get away with, full of dark accusation, half-truths and last-minute leaks. He chuckles when the word "principle" comes up.

Sounds like the late Lee Atwater, the infamous mastermind of George Bush's 1988 campaign. But it's not. It's a Democrat named James Carville, and the Republicans had better take note. Suddenly it's the Democrats who possess a master at the art of running against "Them"--in this case out-of-touch Republicans. It's expertise Bush will see used against him next year, especially if the economy remains weak and middle-class populism is strong.

Carville, a 47-year-old Louisianan known as the "Ragin' Cajun," this fall managed the U.S. Senate campaign in Pennsylvania of one Harris Wofford, a seemingly woebegone '60s-era liberal who had been appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late senator John Heinz. Wofford faced a presumed colossus, former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh. The race started with Wofford 44 points behind in the polls.

But Carville possesses a divining rod for voter resentment. With fellow consultants Robert Shrum, David Doak and Michael Donilon, he crafted a campaign that made old-fashioned Democratic ideas sound like a fresh populist insurgency. Wofford championed national health insurance (which voters want, despite their general distrust of government programs) and accused Thornburgh of junketeering and of going slow in rooting out S&L corruption. The charges were barely credible--but they undermined Thornburgh's clean reputation and painted him as a pampered Washington insider.

Working out of an office in Philadelphia, Carville cultivates a nonpolitical air, quoting Jack Kerouac and dating the chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, Mary Matalin. But he is a fiercely committed political operator. He believes campaigns are based on two things: "opposition research" and money, and he focuses on the same voters Atwater once wooed. It's his feel for the voters who elected Ronald Reagan and George Bush that wins the admiration-and concern-Af GOP operatives, who noted that Wofford and Thornburgh went into the last days of their race in a dead heat. Win or lose, "if we don't learn from this race--and from Carville--we're in trouble next year," said one GOP strategist close to the president. "He whipped our butts."