In the days immediately after charges of sexual liaisons were made against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in the supermarket tabloid Star, his showing in a tracking poll of New Hampshire Democrats fell dramatically. He led former Sen. Paul Tsongas 34-22 percent for the three days ending last Wednesday. By last Saturday, though, he trailed him 25-27 percent.
Then on Sunday night, the governor and his wife responded to the charges on network television. In effect, he conceded past "problems" in his marriage but denied the most publicized ones. Mrs. Clinton said she understood and accepted what happened -- not in the sense of the country music song "Stand by Your Man," she said, but "because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through."
There is a case to be made that the alleged -- and tacitly admitted -- private behavior pattern is not related to Governor Clinton's ability to be president. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Americans would say that. A 1987 Time magazine poll put at 22 percent the number of voters who said they would not support such a candidate. A recent CBS poll put it at only 14 percent.
A much more worrisome question for -- and about -- Governor Clinton is whether he is telling the truth. If he is not, and if that is demonstrated, he can expect certain rejection by the voters. One does not need a poll to know that.
Even if Governor Clinton is telling the truth, the Democrats may have a problem. Poll results on the infidelity question are not big numbers on the surface, but in most elections even half or less of such figures could provide a winning or losing margin.
This goes to the heart of Mr. Clinton's claim that he is the "most electable" Democrat in the race. If he is not, if he demonstrates weakness against a weak field in the first primaries, the party leadership better have a Plan B. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts have not yet come across as presidential and may not later.
If they do not, the party's better-known non-candidates ought to be ready to reverse course and enter the race quickly before the last important filing deadlines have passed. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to stand by a front-runner and settle nomination fights early. But when front-runners stumble, sometimes the nomination goes more or less by default to a candidate the party's leadership and rank-and-file would rather not have as leader -- all this because no other politician of stature was prepared to enter the race.