How did the presidential candidates do during this first semester? Given what they had to work with, how well did the campaigns perform? Here are letter grades and comments for each, with suggestions for next semester.
Republicans George Bush: "A-minus" -- Viewed with contempt by most of the news corps, prone to gaffes, insulated by his cordon of limousines from the voters he seeks to lead, George Bush nonetheless had a fine semester. His pace and timing were superb: by postponing his announcement until October, he gracefully transformed himself from a faithful VP who never disagreed with the boss to a respectful successor with some emphases and nuances of his own. In debate he has been surprisingly disciplined and magisterial, even on Iran-contra. His campaign is well organized and harmonious, and has raised more money by now than any campaign ever before. He still may be prone to gaffes, and the early schedule -- Michigan, Iowa, the Lesser Antilles -- is not favorable. His agenda is disarmingly modest and uninspiring. zut he has moved himself forward to where he needs to be right now.
Bob Dole: "D" -- This is the candidate who should have put himself clearly at the head of the pack by now. In a year when people want a candidate who can govern, Dole is the only one most voters have seen governing in public. But he has taken too long to (a) set up a campaign organization with clear lines of authority and (b) project a message. His campaign has had too many chiefs, with the latest of them, Bill Brock, now supposedly superseding the rest. But any ambiguity about who's in charge inevitably produces disastrous free media in the March crunch, as Gary Hart showed in 1984. Dole's potential message -- you could write it out yourself -- is appealing. But until recent weeks the candidate hasn't shown the discipline needed to dispense with his insider's wisecracks and to speak straightforwardly to ordinary voters. Dole has enough potential that even with this performance he could still win. But he should be in better shape now than he is.
Pete du Pont: "C-plus" -- How do you take an aristocratic former governor of Delaware and make him president? By having him take provocative stands on Social Security, farm supports, teen-age use of drugs: this is du Pont's strategy. He pursues it with crisp speeches and good humor. But it's not clear that he has struck a spark with movement conservatives -- if there are any left out there -- and his debate performances didn't propel him forward. His endorsement by the Manchester Union Leader probably means little; the paper can hurt front-runners (Ed Muskie, George Bush), but doesn't help long shots (Sam Yorty, John Ashbrook).
Alexander Haig: "C" -- Haig has done the best job of ragging Bush on the Iran-contra issue, but in a multicandidate field it doesn't help you to go negative, even when it hurts your target. And he actually says some interesting things. The author of "Caveat" is making excellent progress in learning plain English, and may soon sound almost like a native speaker. He hasn't yet convinced anyone he can win, but he's doing better than expected.
Jack Kemp: "C" -- It isn't really Jack Kemp's fault. His strategy always depended on Bush's and/or Dole's collapsing, and so far neither has. As Fred Barnes pointed out in The New Republic, conservative activists are angry and pessimistic folk and just don't cotton to Kemp's sunny optimism and generous tolerance. Kemp has concentrated too much on activists, losing time trying to outflank Pat Robertson among evangelicals and George Bush among Reagan admirers, and is clearly not where he wanted to be by this time. But he still has a unique and appealing vision which, if projected, could move him forward.
Pat Robertson: "B-minus" -- His organizational work in Michigan, Iowa and some other places has been worth an "A." This is an ambitious man who knows his political nuts and bolts. His problem is that he has to mobilize his evangelical base in caucuses and convince others in primaries that he is not just an evangelical candidate -- when it is plain to all that his strong religious and moral beliefs are what got him into the race. Instead, he has gotten himself into trouble with current and past remarks.
Overall, the Republicans as a party have had a "B" year. Their best-known candidates last spring were trailing Gary Hart; now they're getting 60 percent or more against the Democrats. Iran-contra, the trade deficit, the stock market crash -- none has hurt the Republicans much.
Democrats Bruce Babbitt: "C-plus" -- His big mistake was the failure of his early Iowa media blitz: the TV spots failed to capture his original issue stands or his pungent personality. His July 1 debate performance was a disaster. But he has stuck gamely to the race, and his improved debate style, his intellectually coherent platform and his good Iowa organization leave him in contention. His grade is an average of a D for the first half of the year and a B+ for the second.
Michael Dukakis: "B-plus" -- Dukakis' brilliant fund-raising, his status as the only Democrat associated even vaguely with economic growth, his good organization and his early surge in Iowa and continuing strength in New Hampshire -- all would have earned him an "A." But his self-imposed wound of firing his campaign manager lowers his grade. What's wrong with distributing a videotape that is accurate, fair or relevant? Dukakis' response shows a goody-goody suburban reformism that elevates process over substance and might hurt him on substantive issues as well.
Richard Gephardt: "B-minus" -- Dick Gephardt has done so many things right -- he has criss-crossed Iowa, put together excellent organizations there and in New Hampshire, taken stands that attract key labor unions -- that he must ache that he is not doing better. But his message, forged when Iowa was still in economic decline, has not played so well now that the farm economy is reviving; the trade issue is flagging, as it usually does, and Gephardt's production control plan has had a mixed reception. Gephardt has been squeezed between Paul Simon, outflanking him on the folksy left in Iowa, and Albert Gore, outflanking him on the hawkish right in the Super Tuesday South. Gephardt is still in contention: he's laid the groundwork for a solid campaign if he is the beneficiary of the 30 percent surge that I think is going to win Iowa for one of the candidates. But he has not made it inevitable, as it looked for a moment last year that he could, that he will be the one.
Albert Gore: "A" -- With relatively little organization, with satisfactory but not overwhelming fund-raising, with a candidate who is 39 years old and a candidate's wife who has alienated many big Hollywood fund-raisers because she favors labeling obscene record albums, Al Gore has nonetheless made more progress than any other candidate of either party. He has staked out positions on defense that distinguish him from other Democrats enough to give him a ticket to the Super Tuesday contests but that are not hawkish enough to disqualify him in the big northern states that follow. In debate he has been tough and totally unyielding and shows more command of himself and his peers than every one of those older men on the stage. Gore's campaign manager, Fred Martin -- a speechwriter, not an organizer -- says that his campaign has tried to outthink the others. So far it has.
Gary Hart: "F" -- Put it this way. Last April Gary Hart was way ahead for the Democratic nomination and far ahead of Bush and Dole in general election polls. Today he leads the Democratic field only because most of the others are unknown, and he is totally unacceptable to at least half the Democrats. One thing we all know: this time next year Gary Hart will not be president-elect. Another thing we know: it is all his own fault.
Jesse Jackson: "C-plus" -- Jesse Jackson has done a good job of getting the support of almost all black politicians and of corralling some mainstream political operators -- California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, campaign manager Jerry Austin -- as well. He stands to be a contender throughout the primaries and into the convention. But his issue positions, though modulated, are still too far from those of ordinary voters for him to win. American voters are ready to vote for a black politician like Tom Bradley or Bill Gray. They aren't ready to vote for Jesse Jackson.
Paul Simon: "B-plus" -- Simon has proved once again that the best media candidate is one who doesn't look like a media candidate at all: his purposeful unfashionableness, his bow ties, his old-fashioned liberalism and his corniness have attracted a constituency and inspired a fervor that a candidate as conventionally handsome and carefully politic as Dick Gephardt has been unable so far to assemble. Simon's media image has the advantage of being, as most successful media images are, a reasonably faithful rendering of the individual. The problems in the long haul are that many issues Simon cares about (foreign languages, international exchange) are peripheral and that his arithmetic on the central budget issues doesn't add up. Like Jackson and Robertson, he may find that the very things that make him so attractive to one segment of a diverse electorate make him unattractive to most others. But what the heck. He's had a better 1987 than most of the other Democrats, and put himself in a position where he could very well win Iowa, be Dukakis' major challenger in New Hampshire and be a major candidate in Super Tuesday and beyond.
The Democrats as a party have earned a "D." Not only have their candidates' actions subjected them to ridicule, but their dominant tone -- wailing, whiny, lugubrious -- has not matched the public mood.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.