In Maine, a no-win situation for front-runner Tsongas On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 21, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Portland, Me. -- PART OF the price Paul Tsongas pays for being the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, however temporarily, is the no-win situation he is facing in the Maine party caucuses Sunday.

If Mr. Tsongas wins, his success will be written off as another expression of regional pride. If he loses, the result will be seen as a negative verdict on his electability.

Precedent points strongly toward a Tsongas victory here. Since 1976 the winner of the New Hampshire primary has captured these caucuses as well. That was even true in 1984 although Gary Hart had essentially no organizational presence in Maine and was running against an opponent, Walter F. Mondale, with the solid support of the party establishment. The day after Mr. Hart won his big upset in New Hampshire, Mondale strategists found their ostensibly most-committed supporters here describing themselves as undecided.

Mr. Tsongas, by contrast with Mr. Hart, has an organization in place and another 40 or 50 staffers pouring into the state in these final days. The Massachusetts Democrat also is returning to the state himself in an attempt to exploit the instant political celebrity he earned in New Hampshire Tuesday.

In the end, Mr. Tsongas should win. But he is the kind of shaky front-runner who can least afford to be nicked here. The first priority for him is to persuade his party he can win without spending 10 months of personal campaigning to do it.

The most conventional threat to Mr. Tsongas in Maine comes from the other leading survivor of New Hampshire, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. He has an organization on the ground that is sending mailings to 10,000 Democrats and more support from party officeholders than anyone else. But Mr. Clinton's decision against further personal campaigning in the state suggests he sees only a limited opportunity.

And some prominent Democrats may be having second thoughts after the controversies about his personal life and draft history. "I signed on with Clinton early," one said, "but now I'm beginning to wonder."

Tom Harkin has some labor support in Maine but has fled to a better opportunity in South Dakota. Bob Kerrey, running a token campaign, made a one-hour stop near the airport here the day after New Hampshire before heading west. There are also write-in campaigns for Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson.

But the biggest threat to Mr. Tsongas comes from less direct challenges. One is the possibility that enough Maine Democrats will be so uneasy about their field of candidates there will be an embarrassingly large bloc at the caucuses of voters who prefer to remain uncommitted. The campaign here has not received enough personal attention from the candidates to have built zealous followings for any of them. And there are obvious doubts about the leaders.

A more bizarre possibility is that Jerry Brown, who is spending five days here this week, will rally enough liberals -- particularly those for whom opposition to nuclear power is a litmus test -- to score strongly in a low-turnout situation.

It is not likely but neither is it impossible. Four years ago Michael Dukakis won the caucuses with 42 percent of the vote, but enough white liberals turned out for Jesse Jackson to give him 27 percent of the vote and put him second ahead of 21 percent for uncommitted. Some of the same people who embraced Mr. Jackson four years ago are now supporting Mr. Brown.

The critical element is obviously turnout. In the 1980 contest between President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, some 30,000 votes were cast in the caucuses. But four years ago, when the campaign was limited and interest was low, fewer than 14,000 showed up. The conventional wisdom now is that no more than 15,000 to 20,000 will vote this time, and those estimates may be inflated. It has been largely a shadow campaign.

The prize here is trivial. The caucuses will be choosing about 3,500 state convention delegates who, in turn, will choose 23 delegates to the national convention, one fewer than were at stake in New Hampshire.

But the campaign has not reached the point at which delegate totals matter as much as perceptions and atmospherics. And Paul Tsongas cannot afford any result that contributes to the notion he is a one-state phenomenon.

Beginning Monday, Germond and Witcover will appear on Page 2A of The Evening Sun.

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