Florida, which should be Clinton's turf, up for grabs by Tsongas

March 07, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

MIAMI BEACH -- If this were an ordinary campaign year, Florida would be Clinton Country on Super Tuesday.

Bill Clinton has been campaigning and organizing for months. The state's Democratic establishment is solidly behind him. He won a highly publicized straw ballot at the state party convention in December. And he's likely to spend more money in this state than all the other candidates combined.

By contrast, Paul E. Tsongas, his main rival for the Democratic nomination, has no organization of which to speak. If any prominent Florida politicians are supporting him, no one seems to know their names. His state coordinator didn't arrive until last week, and his campaign headquarters has to share space with a public relations agency near south Miami Beach, a trendy pleasuring ground known less for political strategy than for the European fashion models who sunbathe topless on the sand.

And yet, Mr. Tsongas is poised to give Mr. Clinton a close fight, and perhaps even surprise him, in the Florida primary.

"This state is wide open. Quite frankly, it's a great opportunity for Paul Tsongas to pull a major upset," says Paul Pazzella, a veteran organizer who helped another Massachusetts Democrat, Michael S. Dukakis, win Florida's primary four years ago and who was Bob Kerrey's campaign manager here until this week, when the Nebraska senator dropped out.

"Tsongas is in a no-lose situation," Mr. Pazzella says flatly.

That sort of talk makes Tsongas aides edgy, and most state politicians still give Mr. Clinton the edge. But the latest statewide poll, published yesterday, showed that Mr. Tsongas had pulled into a 24-24 percent dead heat with Mr. Clinton. (The other two Democratic contenders, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, were in single digits).

"We've got a fight on our hands with Tsongas," says Jeff Eller, the Clinton coordinator in Florida. "My belief is that you can do everything right here and still lose."

The closeness of the Clinton-Tsongas contest says as much about the nature of the 1992 presidential race as it does about how little Florida resembles the rest of the South.

With only three days until the election, undecideds still make up the largest group of Democratic voters. If either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Tsongas can gain an advantage in the final weekend of campaigning, it will likely prove decisive.

From the opening tipoff, Mr. Clinton has demonstrated some sharp elbows. He has called Mr. Tsongas a Wall Street Democrat who favors "the rich" over "the rest of us."

His attacks are designed to drive a wedge between Mr. Tsongas and traditional, liberal Democrats, who have become the swing vote in this year's campaign. For Mr. Clinton, these latest moves are a 180-degree pivot away from his initial strategy of fashioning a new Democratic coalition that could appeal to conservatives, independents and Republican-leaning voters in the fall.

The reasons for Mr. Clinton's shift have everything to do with the complicated politics of the nation's fourth-most-populous state. There is competition for the support of elderly Democrats, who may cast up to one-third of the primary vote. The struggle is fiercest in south Florida, where retirees, many of them Jewish, fill the condominiums of Gold Coast communities from Miami Beach north to the Palm Beaches.

Mr. Clinton is warning that Mr. Tsongas might tamper with Social Security by reducing future cost-of-living increases. Yesterday, the Tsongas campaign struck back. TV ads began airing in south Florida that accused Mr. Clinton of knowingly misleading voters on Social Security.

In central Florida, where the swing voters are middle-aged suburbanites, new Tsongas ads began counterattacking on gasoline taxes. Mr. Clinton has attacked a Tsongas proposal for higher gas taxes, and the new Tsongas ad points out that Mr. Clinton had proposed, and obtained, a gas tax increase in his home state.

Besides the new Tsongas ads, there are two other aspects of the campaign that might work to Mr. Clinton's disadvantage. First, black voters, while still favorably disposed to the Arkansan, represent a smaller portion of the primary vote here than they do in other Southern states and may not turn out in large numbers. Second, there are fewer working-class voters in Florida, another group that has gone heavily for Mr. Clinton in other states.

Both sides agree that the overriding issue in the campaign is the economy. Tourism, the largest industry, has suffered its worst decline in almost two decades, officials reported this week, and unemployment is well above the national average.

That could mean more political trouble for President Bush, who is opposed by Patrick J. Buchanan in the Republican primary. GOP officials predict that Mr. Buchanan may draw as much as 30 percent of the vote, though he abandoned the state last week to concentrate on other Super Tuesday states.

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