Will it be a Tsongas-Clinton ticket, or a Clinton-Tsongas ticket, or none of the above? With the results in from last Tuesday's Maryland primary, a pairing of the two Democratic front runners makes sense to more and more party activists -- as much sense as the dream team of Kennedy-Johnson. In that 1960 contest, JFK and LBJ were head-to-head in a contest so bitter it still rankles. Yet when the choice was made, it was to put two disparate candidates together in pursuit of victory.
At this stage, anything still can happen in the Democratic sweepstakes to challenge a vulnerable Republican president. There could be a late entry, say Mario Cuomo, that would scramble all calculations. Or there could be an open convention, with a rush, say, for elder statesman Lloyd Bentsen. Or Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton could emerge arm-in-arm, having decided one of them would have to accept the No. 2 spot to checkmate C, B or X.
What Maryland's primary tells the country is that Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton have quite different constituencies. The former senator from Massachusetts ran phenomenally well in the suburban counties of Washington and Baltimore, making an appeal to white upscale voters. Mr. Clinton's strength was in the black voting districts of Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
That Mr. Clinton hardly planned it that way matters little. That he was touted for the moderate-conservative kind of a campaign now being run by Mr. Tsongas and instead is making a populist-traditionalist pitch that cuts directly into New Dealer Tom Harkin hardly matters, either.
What does matter is that a Tsongas-Clinton or Clinton-Tsongas ticket would present a formidable challenge to President Bush. It would hold the core Democratic constituency while luring moderates away from the Republican column.
While Maryland (for Tsongas) and Georgia (for Clinton) projected a two-man race, Jerry Brown's victory in Colorado was a warning that neither might amass a majority before the July convention.
Now comes Super Tuesday, March 10, and it isn't so super or decisive anymore. Mr. Tsongas will do well in New England, Mr. Clinton in the South, proving nothing. Only Florida, if it produces a Tsongas upset, could be pivotal.
Political strategists already are looking beyond Super Tuesday to a Middle West shootout March 17 in Michigan and Illinois. Big primaries after that will be in New York and Wisconsin April 7, Pennsylvania April 28 and New Jersey and California June 2. The front-loader states may be overwhelmed by the late-loader states.
This primary process may be far from the ideal way of picking a presidential nominee. Indeed, this year, it might not even accomplish that objective. But since it is the dominant system now in place, Maryland can take pride in having pointed the way to a sensible Democratic outcome. This state also rode a Bush bandwagon that in the end should leave its wheel marks on Pat Buchanan.