Tsongas leads Clinton here, but analysts say race is tight

February 25, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Paul E. Tsongas appears to be the leader in Maryland's Democratic presidential primary, but veteran pollsters and experienced campaign managers here say the race remains tight.

A poll by Mason-Dixon Political Research Inc., a Columbia-based firm, shows the former Massachusetts senator with a lead of 26 percent to 33 percent over Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton's fortunes are riding on the turnout among black Marylanders, according to the poll commissioned by WMAR-TV. Among black voters polled, 48 percent supported Mr. Clinton while only 18 percent backed Mr. Tsongas.

The poll was conducted before Mr. Clinton was endorsed Saturday by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. And he is expected to do well in the state's new 4th Congressional District in Prince George's County. Figures were not available for the standing of the other three candidates.

Maryland's role as a testing ground for the anti-charisma, anti-organizational approach of Mr. Tsongas appears to be even more firmly established as the campaign enters its final week here. Paid TV advertisements and news coverage are the crucial mediums of exchange in this race, trumping the nuts-and-bolts of political organizing.

The campaign here also seems to provide the usual test of competing images:

The Clinton campaign worries that its man is struggling against the idea he is the man sometimes referred to in Arkansas as "Slick Willie," a candidate whose skill is so refined and whose message is so practiced it becomes suspicious. The dour Mr. Tsongas, they fear, will succeed in projecting himself as "the truth teller" -- largely because he scorns as "pandering" the middle-class tax break favored by Mr. Clinton. The one-time darling of conservative Democrats, Mr. Clinton appears to be the candidate most dependent in Maryland on black voters and traditional party organizations.

Mr. Tsongas, the long-shot turned front-runner, is the candidate most dependent on media. Running on a low-budget campaign, he needs the sort of immediate media exposure he got as a guest Sunday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."

"This is not a retail campaign like New Hampshire," says Herb Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College. "You can't do it here coffee klatch by coffee klatch. There's too little time. This is a wholesale campaign."

That campaign is displayed to a primary voter in Maryland who tends to be a more liberal, more activist member of the party.

This year, when the primary comes earlier than ever, voters couldbe under even more pressure to learn on their own about the field of candidates and their positions.

"Most of the organizations that have geared up for presidential primaries in the past are not doing much -- only one-tenth of what they have done in the past," says Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda, a polling firm.

Organization, Mr. Haller thinks, will have "minuscule" impact on this year's race -- not good news for Mr. Clinton, whose campaign here was solid and in a good position to capitalize on the media "bounce" of a victory in New Hampshire. That went instead to Mr. Tsongas, who has been less well-positioned organizationally to take advantage of it.

And the race remains fluid.

Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., who came close to an outright win over Mr. Tsongas in the Maine caucuses on Sunday, now says he will attempt to duplicate his 1976 victory in Maryland. Mr. Brown has been all but invisible in Maryland up to now.

"There's a lot of excitement. It's incredible what the Maine caucus has done," said David Hutchinson, who spearheaded Mr. Brown's 1976 victory in the Maryland primary.

Still, the former California governor is behind in organization. He has yet to open a campaign office and has spent little time here, leading one state Democratic official to dub him "the Stealth candidate."

The picture could change again today when South Dakotans vote. The outcome there could give some push to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin or Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

Mr. Harkin, who is s to speak at 4 p.m. today at the University of Baltimore School of Law, made an early drive in Maryland and then took his appeal to New Hampshire. Mr. Kerrey, like Mr. Brown, has been a no-show in Maryland.

"The presidential candidates who put on a major effort can move a lot of votes," Mr. Haller says.

Mr. Smith says he expects Montgomery County to be a major battleground in Maryland. Sources say Mr. Tsongas has obtained voter lists in the Baltimore-Columbia area and in the Beltway counties of Montgomery and Prince George's.

"Looking at the exit polls from New Hampshire," Mr. Smith says, "Tsongas' support group there is a close fit with Montgomery County: educated, more affluent, activist and thinking Democrats."

At the same time, he thought Mr. Clinton was making a mistake if he conceded that territory to Mr. Tsongas. Mr. Clinton suggested during a visit to Baltimore last weekend that Montgomery County's voters might accepting Mr. Tsongas's view that a tax break for the middle class is "pandering."

"He's not only a thinker," says State Sen. Mary Boergers, D-Montgomery. "He's executed this stuff as governor."

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