Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska calls his victory in South Dakota's Democratic presidential primary his "new beginning." Judged by the numbers alone, it was a clear-cut victory. He got 40 percent of the vote, far outdistancing Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's 25, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's 19 and Paul Tsongas' 10. But judged by geography, it was a regional victory for a senator from an adjoining state.
Mr. Tsongas' victory in the New Hampshire primary and his tie in the Maine caucuses were also due to regional considerations. He is a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts. The only previous delegate contest this year -- the Iowa caucus -- was won by Iowa's Senator Harkin.
So no candidate has yet shown national appeal. That is why next Tuesday's three primaries are so important. (Several states begin caucuses March 3, conducted under confusing rules that make their initial outcomes almost meaningless.) The primaries will be the best test yet of how well the Democratic candidates travel. Colorado is next door to Nebraska, and Georgia is next door to Arkansas -- at least you would think it was the way Governor Clinton is campaigning as a "Southern neighbor." But Maryland is neutral territory, no man's land, a level playing field. Keep your eye on Maryland.
If Senator Kerrey does well here, he would become a very serious contender. That would be even more true if he does well in Georgia, and he might, contrasting his Congressional Medal of Honor with Governor Clinton's draft avoidance. The latter's candidacy will be over if he does poorly in Georgia. If Governor Clinton wins there but loses in Maryland, he would be revealed as a regional candidate, and the race will go on even if he sweeps the South on Super Tuesday, March 10, when many Democrats had hoped to settle their contest.
That hope was based on the history of prolonged races producing losing nominees. The Democrats may not be hurt by a long fight this year, since the Republicans also show signs of fighting it out through the spring. In South Dakota President Bush got 69 percent -- running against an uncommitted delegate slate. With Pat Buchanan and David Duke on the ballot, according to the South Dakota Poll, the president would have gotten only 57 percent. He won only 53 percent in New Hampshire. He will be re-nominated, but not unscathed, thanks to Pat Buchanan and the right wing.
The worst result of the Buchanan challenge may be that it seems to have stopped in its tracks the slow movement by George Bush to the political center. This is occurring just as there is Democratic movement toward that center. In New Hampshire and South Dakota the candidates advocating a new (for Democrats), moderate message -- Messrs. Clinton, Tsongas and Kerrey -- won about four times the total vote of the traditional left-liberals, Senator Harkin and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, plus the unorthodox Edmund G. Brown Jr.