Here in the West, where the nation's governors have been meeting this week, the Democrats' chances of starting a 1986 comeback from the Reagan landslide of 1984 have precious little to do with debates about party philosophy and direction. Even in the media age, the politics of personality still predominate in these lightly populated states, and in that arena the Democrats can still compete.
Idaho is an example. Reagan won almost three-fourths of the vote here in 1984, but Democrats are given at least an even chance of winning both the governorship and a Senate seat here next year. The reason has nothing to do with the state's swinging left or the Democrats' moving right. It is purely and simply the candidates the Democrats can offer.
Democratic Gov. John V. Evans, stepping down after two terms to challenge Republican Sen. Steve Symms, and former governor Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, who is attempting to regain his old job, are both comfortable figures that even partisan Republicans find it hard to dislike.
Symms, an apple grower who first came to Congress as a conservative populist, beat Sen. Frank Church in 1980 on Reagan's coattails. He's been as conservative as promised, but the chatter among some Idaho politicians is that he has caught Potomac Fever -- the same thing for which he faulted Church.
Andrus might be thought to be more vulnerable to that charge, since he left the governorship in 1977 to become secretary of interior under Jimmy Carter. But Andrus preempted the criticism by coming home and making it clear that he and his wife would much rather live in Boise as governor and first lady again than run against Symms and go back to Washington's social scene as a Senate couple.
Two of Andrus' old Cabinet-mates are eyeing 1986 races in neighboring Washington and Oregon, and are taken seriously, once again, just as personalities. Ex-Rep. Brock Adams of Seattle is taking polls on his chances against Sen. Slade Gorton and former Portland mayor Neil Goldschmidt has announced for governor of Oregon, where former secretary of state Norma Paulus is the Republican choice to succeed two-term Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh, a Republican.
Adams quit Congress to become Carter's secretary of transportation and Goldschmidt succeeded Adams in that job. The Carter Cabinet credential carries less clout, however, than their personal appeal as candidates.
Perhaps the most vivid demonstration at the governors' meeting of the dominance of personality over policy is Nebraska's Democratic Gov. Robert Kerrey. Kerrey, a handsome, charismatic Vietnam war vet who dates actress Debra Winger, is a strong favorite for reelection in 1986.
His glamor won him appointment by Democratic National Chairman Paul Kirk as one of four vice-chairmen of the party's new policy commission, headed by former Utah governor Scott Matheson. But talk to Kerrey and you quickly find that he is -- to put it politely -- skeptical about the party's whole image-making exercise.
"I've told Paul and Scott they have raised expectations much too much," Kerrey said in an interview here. "I don't have the capacity to sit down with the mayor of Scranton and a councilwoman from Little Rock (two fellow commissioners) and write national farm policy. That's presumptuous."
"Besides," he said, "I don't know if we need to change our image or our message at all. If people think the Democrats will do a better job of protecting their interests, they'll support us. If they don't, they won't."
At home, Kerrey made clear, his own popularity is based not on people agreeing with his policies but respecting his sincerity and political gumption. A major tax-reform initiative, aimed at ending exemptions in the sales tax and using the money to reduce property levies, was clobbered in the legislature by opposition from business, churches, farmers and just about everybody else. But he intends to campaign on it again next year.
Kerrey rejects all of the popular nostrums for curing the Democrats' ailments. Although he supported Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado for the presidential nomination last year, he doesn't want to remodel the Democrats to fit Yuppie ambitions. "If all we talk about is growth in the new Democratic message," he said, "we're encouraging some pretty unhealthy things . . . the idea that people can enjoy consuming first, before they have produced something of value."
Although he concedes that "a populist message," keyed to farmers' discontents, "could carry Nebraska," that approach too is "oversimplistic." Beating up on the bankers and big shots is easy, he said, "but we've got some very generous rich people who invest in pro and have a real vision of the future of our state."
So what do the Democrats do? In states from Nebraska west, the answer is likely to be: Forget the philosophy, and rely on the candidates.