SIX MEN AND A DONKEY

IN THE RADIANT afterglow of the gulf war, when George Bush's popularity ratings arced into the political heavens, it looked for a while as if the Democrats might have a hard time fielding any serious candidates-or at least getting their candidates taken seriously. In the face of such odds, what possessed them?

Paul Tsongas, the first to answer the call, described the inner prompting as "the obligation of my survival." In 1984 he had left the Senate to fight off lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. Now he began thinking of illness as metaphor: cancer as analogue for a sick economy. Cured of one, did he have a duty to treat the other? In December 1990, he consulted Dr. Tak Takvorian, his physician. Could he do a book tour? Campaign for someone else? Make a symbolic stand in New Hampshire? Run a full-fledged national campaign? When the doctor pronounced him fit enough to do any of them, he talked to his wife, Niki. Then he gathered his teenagers, Ashley and Katina, and Molly, his 9-year-old, in the living room of his old house in Lowell, Mass. His daughters looked at him anxiously. Was Daddy sick again? No, he told them. "It's something worse. I want to run for president."

For Jerry Brown, the call came at what might be termed The Burrito Summit. The same month Tsongas was going to the doctor, Brown flew to Washington. The two-term California governor and sometime presidential contender had been reduced to serving as the party's state chairman back home. He was in a funk. For two years he had been touching every California labor union, liberal lawyer and Democratic interest group for money. Where was the old Zen master? At 52, he wore a gold Rolex, and his double-breasted suits curved out over a swelling paunch. He hated it all, wanted to make a comeback. At El Torrito, a fast-frijoles stop in Alexandria, Va., Brown met with Joe Trippi and Mike Ford, two veteran Democratic handlers who believed their party needed something more than wrinkle cream to stay alive. Brown told them he was thinking of running for the Senate. Trippi thought that was a crazy notion-look at Richard Nixon and his vain attempt to win the California governorship in 1962. Brown should be looking at the Nixon who won the presidency in 1968. Knowing his man, Trippi staged a brief Socratic dialogue:

"What office did Nixon hold in 1968?"

Trippi pressed.

"None."

"Now, in 1976, who gets elected president?"

"Carter."

"What office did he hold?"

"None."

"Nineteen eighty-who gets elected president?"

"Ronald Reagan."

"What office did he have?"

Around the head and shoulders of Governor Moonbeam, a dim but quite distinct aura began to glow.

The heat of decision was more intense for Douglas Wilder. For months he sat in the Virginia Statehouse pondering. His office was the tiny cubicle once occupied by Thomas Jefferson. The third president's portrait hung on one wall; across the room was another of Patrick Henry. Sitting between them, Wilder sorted things out. Two times Jesse Jackson had run for the presidential nomination, two times he had lost. People didn't say Jesse couldn't win because he was black. They said it was because he had never held an elected office. Well, let them try that one on the governor of Virginia.

All the talk that liberalism was dead disgusted Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. Labor lived; so did the poor, the ethnics, black Americans, all the old components of the New Deal coalition, however widely scattered. All it took was the right man to pull everyone back together. Not a wimp this time-a real populist. Borrowing a farm from a friend as his backdrop, he said, "I'm here to tell you that George Herbert Walker Bush has got feet of clay and I intend to take a hammer to them."

"Lives are at stake," thought Sen. Bob Kerrey across the way in Nebraska. Kerrey abhorred a vacuum. In running for governor of Nebraska, then the Senate, he had always done well when he rushed to fill one. As early as 1985, Harrison Hickman, a pollster with an eye for talent, urged him to run for president. But as Kerrey resisted the call for '92, Hickman developed what he called The Nightmare Scenario: Bob would wait forever, then sometime around Labor Day 1991 he would sense an opening-and lunge. In 1991, three weeks before Labor Day, Kerrey was watching the Soviet coup on television. Believing that President Bush might be willing to bargain with the ringleaders, he picked up the phone and called Billy Shore, an old campaigner for Gary Hart. "Billy," he said. "I'm going to get into this thing."

Down in Little Rock, Ark., the painters were at work on the governor's mansion, and Bill and Hillary Clinton were sleeping in the guest house. It was the summer of 1991. George Bush's job ratings were setting new records. Only Paul Tsongas had had the fortitude to challenge him. Clinton had thought about the possible contenders, particularly the junior senator from Tennessee. Al Gore was young, Southern, moderate, pragmatic, national. If Gore ran, Clinton didn't want to. But like Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt, Bill Bradley and Jay Rockefeller, Gore was holding back. Clinton slept restlessly that night. Early in the morning, he suddenly sat bolt upright in bed, waking Hillary. She took one look at him and said, "You've got to run." He warned her that things could get ugly, dirty. They both knew what he was talking about. But her return signal was unmistakable: go for it.

So these were the six Democrats who rushed in where others, with bigger names and better resumes, feared to tread. But their boldness, at the time, only cast their liabilities into sharper relief Brown was too flaky; Harkin was too hot, Kerrey too cool; Wilder was too black for some, not black enough for others. Clinton looked all-American, both student-body president and captain of the football team, but wasn't he just a bit too smooth? Tsongas was another Greek from Massachusetts. One of his backers, an old pro from South Boston named Ed Jesser, worried what the country would make of him: "Nationally, it was like, 'Oh God, not another gutless dweeb who isn't going to get pissed off if an entire motorcycle gang drives through his living room and rapes his wife'." Six guys named Moe. In effect, each man had to run against himself as well as everyone else.

To the supercharged media in presidential years, a campaign without a front runner is a car rally without a Porsche: so Kerrey became the instant favorite. He appeared to be everything Gary Hart had wanted to be and wasn't, the ideal "generational candidate": brave enough to win the congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam; handsome enough to attract an actress like Debra Winger; tough enough to win in the West, which had lately turned into a GOP stronghold. "Hell, if he can't beat this field with raw talent, he's not going to beat the next group with four years of preparation," Hickman told the Kerrey camp during a Labor Day conference call. Nor did the candidate suffer from false modesty; he wasn't a no-not-me kind of guy. From his angle of vision, Clinton looked too regional and too conservative. Harkin was too liberal, too furious. Tsongas, Wilder and Brown were pretty much ciphers. When Kerrey called for a "fearless, restless voyage," he appeared to be charting a campaign high in drama and long in vision. "Unbelievably high expectations," thought Jim Prybl, an old friend. "It was practically the Second Coming of Jesus."

But Kerrey had another quality to him, something vaguely indistinct. "People look at him like an inkblot," thought Hickman. Twenty voters tended to see 20 different things in him, a difficult image to manage. Vietnam, where he lost a leg, had shaken Kerrey's faith in linear thinking. "My life has not gone in a straight line," he explained to his handlers, who despaired of getting him to think three weeks, let alone three years, down the road. Kerrey told an old friend in the fall of '91, "I don't know anything about how campaigns run-and I don't intend to learn." The wiser man replied, "You are about to get a big education."

The first lesson was that in the 1990s, three decades after JFK, it takes more than charisma to reach the White House. In the beginning, the front runner didn't have a campaign speech. He hadn't raised any money since his last Senate race. After he bored Democratic state chairpeople in Chicago with his rap on health care and stumbled in New Hampshire over a dumb joke about lesbians Kerrey looked a bit lost. When he talked about his gratitude to a country that had nursed and educated him after he returned maimed, he was moving. But he wouldn't mention his Medal of Honor or even say Vietnam. "Jesus, Bob," senior political adviser Larry Harrington told him. "Some people might think you came back from the moon or something." Reporters noticed his taut nerves, sheepish grins and clowning with Shore. This worried his staff. "It's unbelievable," one field operative reported to headquarters. "It's two guys out here giggling."

All this provoked John Reilly, a veteran of the Carter-Mondale camps of old, to stage what he called "a human-helicopter spiel" at a staff meeting in Washington in early December. "This is Yankee Stadium, The Show," he warned everyone. The press was ready to report that Kerrey was imploding. The candidate had spent $220,000 on media and had nothing but a handful of weak ads to show for it. They had lost the chance to hire George Stephanopoulos, a bright light from the Dukakis campaign, and James Carville, the brilliant orchestrator of Harris Wofford's upset Senate victory in Pennsylvania that November. Both had signed on with Clinton. No one had done any base polls. The Florida straw vote and the first TV debate were only two weeks away. Who was thinking about them? No one was in charge. "If a candidate has a second-class campaign," Reilly said, "he can't be anything but a second-class candidate."

In view of the voters' inflamed loathing of all things Washingtonian, an incumbent senator started with a disadvantage that only ingenuity and hard work could overcome. But instead of mastering the relentless, message-a-day rules of modern presidential campaigns, Kerrey idly watched "The Fabulous Baker Boys" on his VCR. One day he said to his aides, "What we ought to do is go blow up Washington." They pointed out to him that he had voted for the congressional pay raise and accepted PAC money. He could hardly run as an outsider. They would have to find another way.

WHAT THEY FOUND WAS TAD DEVINE. He had run Lloyd Bentsen's vice presidential campaign in 1988. During the preparations for the first candidate debate, Devine played Jerry Brown, waving his arms wildly and rattling off Brownie points so fluently that when the real debate flickered onto the tube, Shore stared at Brown, laughed and said, "Look, it's Tad." After a hardball coup, Devine was installed as campaign manager in December. He promptly squeezed out Kerrey's TV consultant, a friend of 10 years. When Kerrey tried to stick up for the hapless TV meister, Devine said, "Look, those kids in New Hampshire are working hard, doing the job. They need some air cover." "Where did you learn that?" Kerrey said. "Not from the same place you did," Devine replied. "But I know you get it."

He then recruited the political combine of David Doak and Bob Shrum to add throw-weight to Kerrey's TV: they worked up a tough Japan-bashing ad set in a New Hampshire hockey rink. Devine also brought in Tony Corrado, a finance expert, to sort out the campaign's scrambled books. "Zen budgeting," Corrado thought with horror as he discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of outstanding bills. Devine thought he had $850,000 in the till; Corrado called and said, "Tad, you got $250,000 at best." Devine then called Shrum.

"Shrum, you remember that $1 million I said we had?"

"Yes."

"I thought I was lying to you by $200,000. Turns out I was lying by about $800,000."

It took some legerdemain and the power of prayer to keep Kerrey aloft. But Corrado juggled the bills, the hockey-rink ad hit the air and Kerrey scored a seven-point blip in the polls. He was still alive.

On Jan. 9, the race claimed its first casualty: Doug Wilder abruptly withdrew. His feelings all along had been ambiguous. He hadn't entirely wanted to make the race. He knew he couldn't win, but he believed that to stay out would be to shirk a responsibility. No sooner had he declared than grumbling started back home in Virginia, and his ratings as governor drooped. "That scared the daylights out of him," said one confidant; Wilder knew that ultimately he would be judged on how good a governor he had been. He wound up trying to spend 100 percent of his time running Virginia and no time running for president.

Wilder's dream was to rise above the old politics of race. He had succeeded in Virginia; in the North he ran into barriers. Early on, his operatives organized four focus groups in New Hampshire to test the Virginian against the rest of the field. It was a blind test-no photographs. When they were shown the records of all six candidates, Wilder, with his Bronze Star for valor on Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War and his success at balancing a state budget without raising taxes, came out as the favorite in all four groups. Then the samplers played biographical TV commercial from his last gubernatorial campaign. As the video ran, recalls one staffer who was on the other side of a one-way mirror, "the whole room started muttering." People turned and whispered to each other. One woman gasped out loud, "He's black." "We lost every single vote," the staffer said. "As soon as they saw he was black, it was over."

Brown, the retread, developed some of the season's freshest campaign ideas. He tapped into the airwave populism of radio and TV talk shows well before Ross Perot; he limited campaign contributions to $100 in order to beat the drums against PAC-men; he used an 800 number to raise money. Diverted by his notions of a senate race, Brown came late to the presidential contest. But then he banged out a nine-page "Dear Friend" letter and spent 14 hours faxing his intentions to 400 media outlets. After that he moved on to a Philadelphia hotel, stripped to his boxer shorts and dark knee-high socks and started punching out a formal declaration on his laptop computer. Ford tried to get him to stop using the word "empowerment" every second line.

"Why don't you try magic?" the handler asked.

"I don't like magic. Why do you think we gotta use magic?"

"Cause you're Goofy, is why. It's like Disney World."

As much as Ford liked to needle the candidate, he was there because he believed that only a genuine insurgency could shake the Democrats out of their collaboration with the GOP in the political iniquities of the 1980s. Standing outside Independence Hall the next day, Brown tore into PACs, the congressional pay raise, House check bouncers, the money culture, rotten incumbencies and political consultants. From across the plaza, Ford and Pat Caddell, the perennial political visionary who had attached himself to Brown, studied the effect. Reporters spotted them. "Look, it's the Thelma and Louise of politics," shouted one of the hacks. Like the sleeper hit of '91, Jerry Brown was going to have a surprisingly long run.

Fat-cat money and voter apathy were twin demons in Brown's new theology. The previous spring, Brown had invited a group of advisers to the converted firehouse where he lived in San Francisco. Over brown rice and leftover sushi, they talked about how to convince passive voters they could have a stake in presidential politics. Brown wanted no contribution over $100-any voter could buy in. His counselors weren't so sure. Anything under $250 might leave them too threadbare to campaign. "No, to get the idea across, you've got to do it for $100," Brown said. To test the notion, Jacques Barzaghi, a French filmmaker with a shaved head who had served as Brown's alter ego for 20 years, took an informal survey aboard an airplane. Walking up and down the aisle, he asked passengers how much they were willing to contribute to a political campaign. $1,000? No takers. $500? A few. $250? A few more. But when Barzaghi suggested $100, he reported back to the firehouse, "I never, never got no."

How to rake it in? The solution came from Joe Costello, a young volunteer who believed in television, satellites and the power of late-night cable shows. From Jerry Falwell and the televangelists he got the idea of using an 800 number to bankroll Brown. "Those guys are selling eternal life," he said. "If you can bring a strong enough message to people, you can definitely get them to respond." Brown was only selling the polities of purity. But why not give it a try? They set up a phone bank in downtown Los Angeles. One night Brown gave out the number on the Larry King radio show, and the bank lit up like a video arcade. Before long the campaign was spending $20,000 a week, living off a phone number.

Within the respectable world of network TV, newspapers and magazines, Brown was almost invisible. But Costello booked him onto every radio and TV talk show he could find. Listeners tuned in, and the 800 number rang itself right into gridlock. Brown was running last, but he could still raise money. This candidate could stumble without doing himself terminal harm.

"I'm in terrible trouble." The Mayday call went from Gov. Bill Clinton to Frank Greer, a Washington political consultant, more than a year before the presidential campaign. To Arkansas voters, he was beginning to look like an overly familiar face; he had also raised taxes to pay for reforming education and improving the state's infrastructure. For a while, he thought that he wouldn't run for a record fifth term. Until the day he declared, not even Hillary was certain he would make the race. Then Greer and Stan Greenberg, a Yale prof turned pollster who understood the mood of the embattled middle class and the Reagan Democrats, helped reposition him as an "agent of change." He won easily. A year later he had an exploratory committee poking into a presidential campaign. His first headquarters could field only one fax and a phone or two. He was a mystery to the voters outside Arkansas and even something of an enigma to his handlers. "The scary thing," said one top Clinton adviser, "is that we don't know our own record."

What they did know was that Clinton would have to contend with the rumors about his womanizing. Right-wingers had used the gossip against him in his gubernatorial campaigns. The national media had bubbled with the talk ever since he edged, almost disastrously, onto the national stage with a windy nominating speech at the '88 convention. They had to put a stop to the rumors, Hillary Clinton told Greer and Greenberg during an early-September meeting with her husband at the governor's mansion. The danger, she said, was in the pervasiveness of these stories.

UP UNTIL THEN, Clinton had been able to straight-arm the problem by refusing to answer the "have you ever" questions that undid Gary Hart. Now both he and his wife knew that they needed a stronger defense. The Clintons loved each other. They had come to terms with a past that included several rough patches in their marriage. They needed to find some way of acknowledging that past without confessing to it: the weaselly, then wimpy, confessional mode of Gart Hart had destroyed him. The meeting that September reached a consensus on the line they would follow months later when the issue nearly shredded the campaign: they would say that while the marriage had absorbed some shocks, the Clintons were committed to one another and to their daughter, Chelsea. The larger calculation was that the public was disgusted with political pillow talk and that the media were losing their taste for playing character cop.

Two weeks later, when Washington reporters asked Clinton about womanizing, he easily weathered the embarrassment. Over the next two months he hit his stride, declaring his candidacy, chilling the AFL-CIO in Detroit, wowing the Democratic state chairs in Chicago in a performance that established him as a significant contender. Then a rock groupie from Arkansas named Connie Hamzy sold Penthouse magazine a story saying that she had had a sexual encounter with Clinton in a Little Rock motel. Hillary, furious, wanted to attack the story and discredit the woman. Clinton seemed calmer. Over dinner that night at La Fogata, his favorite Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, he recalled that he had been at a meeting at the Little Rock Hilton when Hamzy turned up in a bathing suit: "She said, 'Come inside this stairwell.' I said, 'Naw.' And she said, 'Well, here's what you're missing,"-and dropped her top. Clinton publicly dismissed the Penthouse story as "a complete fabrication." But it foreshadowed more serious trouble for the candidate up the road.

In a modern campaign, the candidate with the most money, the quickest reflexes and the best organization can make up for weaknesses elsewhere. In December, Clinton stormed into Orlando for the Florida straw poll. The delegate beauty contest had no concrete value, but the publicity was vital. For the convention at the Buena Vista Hotel, the Clinton camp spent $50,000 on everything from rental microphones to 2,000 Chinese fortune cookies containing the message "Bill Clinton is going to be in your future." Michael Whouley, a tough-talking Boston Irish pol, wired the event, turning the hotel's audiovisual center into an electronic command post. Clinton clobbered everyone. Harkin was humiliated, Kerrey nowhere in sight.

Among the elders of the Democratic Party, Clinton's progress struck a note of alarm. Were they on the same old ruinous course, about to nominate another obscure and vulnerable loser? Some looked to New York, where Gov. Mario Cuomo was once more engaged in prolonged public pondering over his future. If Cuomo got into the race, it was thought, he would vaporize Harkin in New Hampshire. That would set up a showdown between the party's traditional liberals, lined up behind the New Yorker, and the rest of the party behind Clinton. Clinton's strategy was to box Cuomo in as the symbol of a losing past, but in the end he didn't need to. On Dec. 20, Cuomo had planes chartered for a sprint from Albany to New Hampshire to meet the filing deadline for the primary. Clinton, hoarse and on the wing to Nashville, Tenn., to see a doctor about his throat, had prepared a statement that he meant to deliver on landing, welcoming Cuomo into the race.

Over a cellular phone, Stephanopoulos reached Clinton aboard his flight. "Governor, don't get off that plane," he said frantically, and told him that Cuomo had announced he wouldn't run. Clinton quickly worked up a few sentences saying he understood the pressures upon the governor of New York, the responsibilities he faced. When a press secretary reached Hillary at the mansion to read her the new text, she interrupted him in surprise:

"He's not running?"

"No, he's not."

"Oh my God."

Hillary Clinton had gone into the race assuming that her husband would only be practicing for 1996, that she could talk freely about the concerns of women and families. Now, with Cuomo gone, the dry run had turned into a very real thing.