WASHINGTON -- Like players in a March Madness video game, the presidential contenders are dodging obstacles and squeezing off shots at a frenzied clip these days.
With 22 states voting between now and March 10, the pace is nearing warp speed. Only the most skillful, or lucky, competitors may advance to the next level.
In the wide-open Democratic contest, the next nine days will test the strength of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the purported front-runner, who has yet to win a primary or caucus anywhere.
It will also prove whether former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas can score outside his native New England, and whether Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey gained any impetus from his primary victory in neighboring South Dakota.
On the Republican side, President Bush, clearly rusty at this campaign game, has struggled to shoot down the elusive candidacy of TV pundit Patrick J. Buchanan, to no avail.
His next chance comes Tuesday, when three states have primaries and four others have caucuses, the biggest day so far in the '92 race. Insiders have tagged it Junior Tuesday to distinguish it from Super Tuesday, one week later, when 11 states hold primaries and caucuses.
As the candidates flit from media market to media market, they're firing off verbal rockets at each other, trying to gain points with undecided voters. Mr. Kerrey is questioning Mr. Clinton's patriotism; Mr. Clinton is calling Mr. Tsongas a closet Republican; and Mr. Tsongas is hitting back at Mr. Clinton for twisting his record and playing negative politics.
Meantime, Mr. Buchanan is portraying the president as a trade wimp and a promoter of pornographic art, while Bush ads counterattack by painting the challenger as a woman-hater who is faint-hearted when it comes to using military force.
Campaign tactics and itineraries change at a moment's notice, as candidates move to exploit an opening or repel an attack. Angela "Bay" Buchanan, her brother Pat's campaign manager, says only half-jokingly that it's all she can do to stay 30 minutes ahead of events.
"These are very fast and very difficult decisions that people are making right now, and they're very important because you're betting a significant share of your resources," says Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee.
Nothing better captures the brain-numbing nature of the '92 campaign than this weekend's Democratic exercise: a rolling debate unparalleled in political history. From Colorado to Georgia to Maryland, the candidates are to square off in three televised encounters within 24 hours.
Those three states -- the ones holding primaries this week -- are the targets for the leading Democrats.
Mr. Tsongas is zeroing in on Maryland, which aides call a must-win state. The same holds true in Georgia for Mr. Clinton, whose Southern support is on the line.
Colorado, the third primary, would seem a juicy opportunity for Mr. Kerrey, the senator from next-door. But polls show Mr. Tsongas leading, with Mr. Clinton second and former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. of California coming up fast.
Complicating the picture for all: A dwindling supply of ammunition, in the form of scarce campaign dollars.
That is most painfully apparent for Democrat Tom Harkin, who scaled back his campaign last week. He is now concentrating on less-costly caucus states, trying to stay alive past March 10, when the action shifts to the Great Lakes industrial states of Illinois and Michigan.
"It's a game of longevity," says Tim Raftis, the Iowa senator's campaign manager.
Even the most heavily armed Democrat, Mr. Clinton, is having to conserve his fire, after a costlier-than-expected battle in New Hampshire. He has Mr. Tsongas in his sights in Maryland but may not be able to bring him down. Mr. Clinton was only able to make a last-minute buy in the expensive Washington television market, home to one-third of the state's Democrats and the largest concentration of Tsongas voters.
The Tsongas camp, meantime, has been forced to expend precious ad money in Georgia, where Mr. Clinton is the prohibitive favorite. By running everywhere, Mr. Tsongas is attempting to demonstrate that he is a national candidate.
Every dollar spent now takes away from Florida and Texas and the other Super Tuesday states, where none of the Democrats is likely to match the $2 million to $3 million in media money spent in 1988 by candidates like Michael Dukakis and Albert Gore. But campaign strategists hope Junior Tuesday will provide a lift in the form of free news coverage that compensates for the lack of paid commercials.
While the Democrats scatter across the landscape, the Republicans are squaring off in Georgia, the place Mr. Buchanan calls "the New Hampshire of the South." Both candidates are spending the weekend there, in a no-holds shootout for the votes of Republicans and conservative Democrats, who are free to take part in the open GOP primary.