Too Few Candidates or Too Many?

March 05, 1992

A national poll this week showed that 52 percent of Democrats wish someone else would enter their party's presidential race. Exit polls in Maryland showed over four of 10 Democratic voters Tuesday wanted additional presidential candidates in the race. In Florida, which holds a primary next week, a poll shows 58 percent of Democrats want another candidate.

So the Democratic front-runners, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, have their work cut out for them. They must demonstrate to the public that they have -- or at least one of them has -- what it takes. Paradoxically, one reason they have not been able to do that (assuming they do in fact have what it takes) is that there are too many Democratic candidates. The Clinton message and the Tsongas message have not been getting a full hearing with five active candidates in the race.

It seems fairly clear that two of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have nothing more to contribute. Those candidates are Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Their presence in the race adds little and may interfere with the party's effort to find a nominee and decide on a message. On Tuesday, Senator Harkin ran only 400 votes ahead of "uncommitted" in Colorado and behind "uncommitted" in Georgia and Maryland. Senator Kerrey ran behind "uncommitted" in Maryland and a bare 1 percent ahead of "uncommitted" in Georgia. His best showing was in Colorado, where he campaigned full tilt, and which is next door to Nebraska, but he got less than half the votes of the third-place finisher, Mr. Tsongas.

The front-runners have earned the right to proceed with as little distraction as possible. It is inevitable that there will be some, of course. But if anyone has earned the right, it is former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California, not Senators Harkin or Kerry. Last Tuesday in Utah, Colorado, Georgia and Maryland, the unorthodox Mr. Brown out-polled Senator Harkin by better than 2-1 and beat Senator Kerrey by nearly that margin.

Messrs. Clinton and Tsongas deserve a full hearing not only because they are the front-runners, but also because each would lead the Democratic Party in significantly different directions as its leader. The party's future may be determined to a large degree by the debate that takes place in the next phase of the 1992 campaign.

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