ATLANTA -- Now that the dust has settled, it is clear the Junior Tuesday primaries and caucuses were a bummer for both parties.
The message in the Republican results is that President Bush is facing the possibility of serious defections among Repust Bush even in states where Buchanan passed. It is plain that the president's weakness is a function of his own performance, not just the availability of an alternative whose own credibility remains in doubt.
The Democrats should be rejoicing at this prospect, but their own picture is little more encouraging. In Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas they have two front-runners who seem incapable -- for now, at least -- of lighting any fires across the diverse constituencies of the party. And the Democrats still have to deal with Jerry Brown, of all people.
Tsongas did demonstrate that he can win outside New England with his successes in Maryland, Utah and Washington. And Clinton's margin here in Georgia was impressive enough to point him toward a big delegate score in the Super Tuesday primaries next week. But the candidate many party insiders had hoped would emerge, Bob Kerrey, is a political basket case.
None of this fulfills the scripts the two parties originally wrote for 1992. The Republicans expected President Bush to sail to the nomination while using his massive primary treasury to get a running start on the campaign against the Democrats. Instead, the president faces the prospect of dragging himself to the nomination with Buchanan's teeth sunk into his ankle. The conservative commentator cannot win the nomination but he will continue to get press attention, even if largely as a gauge of Bush's vulnerability.
The Democrats had hoped that the "frontloading" of their delegate-selection process would produce an early consensus on a candidate who could quickly turn his attention to Bush. Instead, the outlook now is for a contest that runs into May and perhaps all the way to the climactic primaries in California and New Jersey June 2. Someone eventually will win the nomination, but it is hard for Democrats to see how they get there.
The immediate outlook is clear. Clinton can be expected to win an impressive delegate prize next week in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Louisi
ana, Mississippi and Oklahoma. But entering the March 17 primaries in Illinois and Michigan, the first in major states of the Rust Belt, the Arkansas governor will still be seen in some quarters as a regional candidate. Nor has he convinced political professionals that his draft history is not heavy political baggage.
There was also disturbing news for Clinton in the small turnout in the black community here. Although the most prominent black political leaders here supported him, most blacks found no reason to vote for a candidate who has been directing his appeal at the middle class.
Tsongas proved that he has an appeal to suburban, well-educated, affluent Democrats who welcome his Dr. Pain message and find his lack of flair appealing. But Tsongas is also an acquired taste that has not yet made it with many elements of the Democratic coalition. It is clear the doubts about his electability in November have not been resolved.
Meanwhile, the resurrection of Brown is a reminder to both parties that there are many voters ready to react against politics as usual. In the political community, Brown is not taken seriously. He is too well remembered as a politically unreliable intellectual faddist during his two terms as governor of California. But his attack on the corruption in the political financing system is winning a sympathetic hearing with a bloc of voters the Democrats dare not forfeit.
The situation in both parties can change, of course. At some point, the press may decide Buchanan's 36 percent is not really a victory after all. President Bush may find his footing and the economy may improve by convention time. Simply by winning, one of the Democrats may take on the aura of celebrity that winners almost inevitably acquire.
But the general election recalls the sports writer who said of the 1944 World Series: "Neither team can win a game."