With the glitzy White House chapter of his life buried, Hamilton Jordan's Senate campaign may be ready to take off.
"The governor's people sure are happy to see you moving," a former Republican state chairman called out to Jordan at a restaurant here. Conservative Democrats in the mold of Gov. Joe Frank Harris fear that if Atlanta liberal and respected congressional Democrat Wyche Fowler is nominated, first-term Reaganite Republican Sen. Mack Mattingly will be home free in November. That could determine control of the Senate.
Jordan's task is to nurture and exploit conservative Democratic fears. His campaign theme: Fowler cannot beat Mattingly; only "a Sam Nunn Democrat" -- not what he calls "a Tip O'Neill Democrat" -- can or should win in November. His objective: prevent the front-running Fowler from picking up a majority in the Aug. 12 primary. If the congressman falls short, as now seems likely, Jordan could benefit in the Sept. 2 runoff from more than supporters of two other conservative candidates in the race: he would hold the focus in the second primary as conservative country boy against liberal city slicker.
A candidacy considered hopeless when Jimmy Carter's political mastermind (freshly cured of lymphatic cancer) first announced his Senate intentions has now become viable because of changes in Ham Jordan himself. Gone are the jeans, boots, leather jack1702109281smirk. Gone, too, are the bawdy jokes and self-righteous anger at what he called "the jackals of the Washington establishment." Less obvious, the one-time White House liberal has preached for two years the need for Democrats to move right.
Breaking with Carter-era partisan passions, Jordan told us he would return to Washington not as a "highly partisan Democrat like Fowler" and not even "for or against Ronald Reagan." He would be back "as an American" pledged to improve economic conditions and "to build a bright Georgia for the future" (with details still suitably vague). Given Reagan's 60 percent Georgia win in 1984, that lack of partisanship is sensible. Jordan is not about to attack a president who has made Mattingly's reelection a key for keeping the Senate under Republican control the rest of his presidency.
Jordan's conservative strategy is causing trouble between Fowler and Gov. Harris. After a crescendo of public appeals that party leaders stay neutral, Fowler this week made a stronger neutrality demand directly to Harris in a 30-minute closed-door meeting. The governor's promise to do so can hardly dull conviction in every county courthouse across the state that Harris fears a Fowler nomination would reelect Mattingly.
Some Fowler allies want him to react more forcefully than appealing to the governor for neutrality. They say detractors of Fowler's liberalism and its accompanying "can't win" chant might be silenced by a threat to bring up the White House years -- perhaps a juicy Jordan escapade or maybe the hated Carter grain embargo.
Fowler resists. He knows that any attempted resurrection of the bad boy of the Carter years would impel Jordan, as one of the congressman's advisers told us, "to take his own gloves off." Fowler would come under attack as a big-spending, antidefense liberal.
The gloves have stayed on as Jordan continues reducing high negative attitudes toward him and seeks new money to update his four 30-second TV spots. On the air for three weeks, they wisely say almost nothing about his Senate agenda beyond praise for Reagan's decision to attack Muammar Qaddafi. If the gloves come off, the marginal gainer would be Jordan, but the wreckage might guarantee Mattingly's reelection.