What Maryland Proved Yesterday

March 04, 1992

Five primaries into the 1992 presidential race, the Democrats have no clear idea who their nominee will be. This is not the way it was supposed to be. Fearful of a long, drawn-out, debilitating contest, like so many in the past have been, the Democrats "front-loaded" their delegate selection process this year. They hoped this would produce an early decision. Maryland moved to the third round, after New Hampshire and South Dakota, and along with Georgia, expecting that that would help.

Yet all yesterday's primaries may have done was help eliminate Sen. Paul Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska from contention. They did so poorly in Border Maryland, Deep South Georgia and the Mountain West that it is hard to take them seriously any more.

Except for his surprisingly strong showing in Colorado, Edmund G. Brown Jr., the politically eccentric former governor of California, would not be worth taking seriously, either. But he may have staying power in his West, in a narrowed field. He can't win, but he can quite possibly deny a pre-convention win to either of the now co-front-runners, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who won big in Georgia and did fairly well here, and Maryland's winner, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.

Maryland's outcome proves at least two things about the Democratic front-runners. Paul Tsongas can win big victories outside his home territory. He is the only candidate who can say that so far. And Bill Clinton, despite his conservatism and Senator Harkin's embrace of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition platform, has strong appeal to black Democrats everywhere. That almost certainly means he will do well again next week in the Southern states voting on Super Tuesday. But Super Tuesday is not going to settle anything, either.

On the Republican side, President Bush won what would be viewed as landslides in normal circumstances. But these are not normal times for Republicans. The fact that a candidate as inexperienced in government and as extreme of view as Pat Buchanan could attract over a third of Georgia voters and somewhere near that in Maryland and Colorado spells Trouble with a capital T for George Bush. The president has been campaigning hard, beginning in New Hampshire. He is not losing these voters by default. He is not losing them because of Pat Buchanan's appeal. He is losing them because a lot of Republicans (and non-Republicans in Georgia, where cross-voting is routine) disapprove of his presidency. Many of these people voted for him in November, 1988, and are saying they may not in November, 1992.

George Bush is almost certainly going to be renominated, but if Pat Buchanan keeps getting his 30-plus percent of the vote through the final primaries in June, that nomination will not be nearly as valuable as it was once thought to be. Every punch Mr. Buchanan takes and shakes off, the more he devalues a Bush nomination. If he goes 15 rounds, a Bush decision may be worthless.

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