Tsongas has setback in Maine Brown shares lead

Clinton takes third

February 24, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Maine -- Paul E. Tsongas suffered a mild but embarrassing rebuff in the Maine Democratic caucuses yesterday, running no better than even with Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. in the second test of the contest for the party's presidential nomination.

Mr. Brown's show of strength came as no great surprise. He had spent five full days campaigning here since finishing fifth with only 8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The former Cali-fornia governor used his condemnation of the political establishment and his opposition to nuclear power, which Mr. Tsongas favors, to draw hundreds of new participants to caucuses in and around Portland.

With 92 percent of the 3,566 delegates to the state convention chosen, the front-running Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Brown each had 30 percent of the vote. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas received 15 percent, the same as the vote for "uncommitted." Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, neither of whom made a serious effort here, were trailing with under 5 percent each.

The result was not expected to have any marked effect on the national campaign, although Brown partisans were touting it as a breakthrough. Jo Karr, the state party chairwoman, also suggested the Brown vote would mean that "now the national media have to give him an even break." But Mr. Brown's negatives in opinion polls of voters at large are so high that he is considered unlikely to replicate his performance here when dealing with a larger audience of Democrats.

But there was no question that Tsongas partisans were disappointed at the failure to win a clean victory. Since 1976, winners of the New Hampshire Democratic primary have won every Maine caucus day, usually by a comfortable margin. And because he is a former senator from nearby Massachusetts, Mr. Tsongas was presumed to have a regional advantage in Maine.

The one consolation for Mr. Tsongas was the relatively weak performance of Mr. Clinton, his principal rival of the moment. Mr. Clinton was supported here by more Democratic officeholders than any other candidate and by an organization that was considered the best in the brief campaign. Moreover, he had raised the stakes by flying into the state for an 11th-hour appearance late Saturday in an attempt to capitalize on these ostensible advantages.

Mr. Tsongas, who appeared briefly at a caucus at Portland High School before flying to South Dakota, also augmented his Maine organization with 50 young organizers in the final few days after New Hampshire. But some key supporters here described the organization as too little too late in light of the intense effort by Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown's strength was heaviest in the Portland area, where he apparently tapped into widespread environmentalist opposition to nuclear power and Mr. Tsongas' support for it. Ms. Karr suggested that the issue is volatile enough to have confronted Mr. Tsongas with a serious obstacle to overcome. "I think Tsongas did very well in spite of his nuclear position," she said.

That Mr. Brown was able to skew the turnout was obvious in several caucuses. In suburban Cape Elizabeth, for example, the caucus attracted about 200 Democrats, many of them first-time participants, who voted heavily for Mr. Brown. And Mr. Brown's supporters clearly dominated the largest caucus in Portland, cheering him loudly and heckling Mr. Tsongas.

Mr. Brown also was being credited with drawing support for his basic message that the corruption of the political system is the central issue of the campaign. Harold Pachios, a Portland lawyer and longtime party leader who supported Mr. Tsongas, said: "They were listening to both of them. They really wanted to hear what they had to say."

But, although no final figures were available, it appeared the turnout was far lower in areas where Mr. Brown was less successful in adding to the universe of caucus participants. Turnout was down sharply in Lewiston and Bangor.

Liberal activists in Maine have had similar, although less dramatic, impacts on some caucuses in the past. Four years ago, for example, Michael S. Dukakis won with 42 percent, but the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson ran second with a surprising 27 percent in a state with few black voters. That performance, too, resulted from organization that attracted new people into the caucus process.

One veteran Democratic leader here said privately: "This is a good argument for not having caucuses. They're too easy to pack."

But, packed or not, the story here was Mr. Brown's best moment -- and an elbow in the eye for Mr. Tsongas.

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