POLITICS: The McGovern Issue

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The primaries have begun to blur somewhat, like cities watched from a headlong cross-country train. But if the grueling and expensive system has any merit, it is that it at least determines which candidates travel well. Last week, as the sheer surprise of George McGovern's early primary successes was wearing off, the central questions of his candidacy emerged more clearly: Can he command a winning national constituency once his stands on the issues become widely known and debated? Can his coalition of the discontented widen its embrace sufficiently to win him a nomination? An election?

Those questions arose crucially in the final days of Nebraska's primary last week. McGovern had depended upon a solid victory in Nebraska, which adjoins his own South Dakota. Hubert Humphrey had all but conceded the state, but then, scenting the possibility of an upset, Humphrey plunged in with a major, if belated, campaign. Humphrey's camp fostered an impression that McGovern was too radical to be taken seriously for the nomination.

No one accused Humphrey of organizing a smear campaign, but he did set the theme: "The McGovern record speaks for itself. A candidate can't be quoted two ways." A more specific formulation: McGovern is pro-marijuana, pro-abortion and pro-amnesty for draft resisters. "This is the McGovern record," said an advertisement in the Roman Catholic archdiocesan newspaper in Omaha. The ad was placed by the Citizens Concerned for Preservation of Life. At the same time, McGovern's promise to cut the defense budget by $32 billion alarmed residents around the Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command.

McGovern understood the significance of the attack. He repeatedly and specifically explained himself. In doing so, he did not alter the substance of his previous stands, although he may have shifted his emphasis to placate more conservative Democrats. Previously McGovern had said that "abortion is a private matter which should be decided by a pregnant woman and her own doctor. Once the decision is made, I do not feel that the law should stand in the way of its implementation." But on a Nebraska television program he said that there should be some restrictions: "You can't let just anybody walk in and " request an abortion."

McGovern has never favored the legalization of marijuana. On the Nebraska TV show he opposed jail sentences for possessors. But he insisted that no penalty was too harsh in dealing with 5 "murderous, unprincipled" drug pushers. On amnesty, he explained that he was merely following the precedents set by Lincoln, Coolidge and Truman, all of whom declared postwar amnesties. "Nobody ever called Calvin Coolidge a dangerous radical," said McGovern. The Senator favors amnesty for conscientious objectors but not for deserters.

McGovern campaigned with former Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison, 66, who was imposingly dressed in white Stetson and cowboy boots. Asked Morrison: "Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than that old Frank Morrison is out advocating a dangerous left-winger?"

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