Can Clinton Hold His Lead in the Democratic Race?

January 26, 1992|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,Paul West is The Baltimore Sun's national political correspondent.

Presidential primary season formally opens three weeks from Tuesday. And the way some folks are talking, it could close the same day.

The scenario: Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the current leader in the polls, wins big in New Hampshire on Feb. 18. Then he cleans up in the next big round of primaries, in the South, his political bastion, on March 10.

Predicts a Clinton adviser: "Illinois [on March 17] will be the coup de grace."

"Clinton can walk now," agrees a senior Bush campaign aide. "The guy doesn't even have to break a sweat."

Could it happen? Sure. The 1988 Republican race was effectively over in March, six weeks after George Bush's decisive victory in the New Hampshire primary.

This year finds the Democrats a united party, at least by their fractious standards. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the man who prolonged the 1984 and 1988 nomination fights, isn't running. Most important, none of Mr. Clinton's cash-starved rivals can continue for long without primary victories to attract fresh

contributions.

One could argue that the chances are greater today than at any point in recent decades that the nomination race could be over before most Democrats have a chance to vote.

But odds are that won't happen.

Despite the polls, Mr. Clinton is no shoo-in to win New Hampshire. Being out front early is perilous in politics, as the governor knows all too well these days. The deluge of press accounts about his private life is a reminder that front-runners often become targets of the hottest rhetoric from their opponents and the most intense scrutiny from the news media.

His appearance tonight on "60 Minutes," to answer questions about marital infidelity, only adds uncertainty to the already volatile 1992 race. Will the sexual allegations sink his candidacy? Or will they generate a sympathy vote?

Most voters, including those in New Hampshire, are not firmly committed to anyone yet. In their minds, the images of the candidates are barely forming and could change literally overnight.

Standing in the way of the Democrats' fervent dream of an Immaculate Nominee -- someone unbloodied by a long and bitterly divisive primary campaign -- are some other potential obstructions, including changes in party rules.

Jesse Jackson may have moved to the sidelines, but his influence will be felt in rules changes he demanded and won at the convention four years ago. This year, delegates will be awarded on a strictly proportional basis -- that is, according to the percentage of the vote each candidate receives. (Only Republicans have winner-take-all primaries). That means it will be mathematically difficult for any candidate to secure a majority of the delegates until late in the primary season, probably not until May, or even June.

The news media will also do their part to keep the contest alive, especially when it gets down to a head-to-head showdown between the front-runner and his main challenger. Already, network television planners are expressing private delight over the way the race is shaping up. They'd like nothing better than to be able to air cozy debates in early March with only two, or at most three, candidates on screen.

Some contenders this time are more likely than others to keep the race going. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the most conventional liberal in the race, would offer primary voters the clearest contrast to new Democrats such as Mr. Clinton or Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Also, if Mr. Harkin survives New Hampshire, he can )) probably count on the support of organized labor to sustain his campaign for many weeks.

Mr. Kerrey, on the other hand, has neither the temperament nor the political incentive to keep his candidacy alive to the bitter end. He is already showing signs of being this year's Washington wonder -- a darling of politicians and the press inside the Capital Beltway but a flop on the campaign trail. He might be reluctant to risk his future in national politics by stubbornly prolonging the race.

Just who will survive depends largely on New Hampshire. And it is there that the notion of a short campaign faces its biggest roadblock.

Through the years, cantankerous Granite State voters have repeatedly refused to rubber-stamp somebody else's idea of a front-runner. In 1988, they picked Mr. Bush over Bob Dole, who had rocketed into the lead in the presidential race on the strength of his victory in the Iowa caucuses the week before. When the experts predicted that Walter F. Mondale would stroll to the nomination by winning in New Hampshire in 1984, the voters turned around and gave the primary to Gary Hart instead.

With Iowa having no real influence this year, a "media primary" has taken its place as the first big test of the 1992 race. The clear winner: Bill Clinton. Ever since Gov. Mario M. Cuomo announced in December that he wouldn't run, the Clinton boomlet has been gathering steam. Without a single vote cast, his face has graced the cover of Time, New York and The New Republic, which called him "The Anointed."

Now, Mr. Clinton himself is starting to worry that matters have gotten out of control. He has told aides that his greatest fear is that New Hampshire will be overcome with "buyer's remorse." He's right to be concerned. The Clinton hype is exactly the sort of thing that could trigger widespread second-thinking among Democratic voters.

If Mr. Clinton still looks like a shoo-in on primary day, expect lots of New Hampshirites to pick another candidate -- maybe someone unflashy, such as former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas -- just to make sure the race doesn't end before it starts.

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