Fla. primary a replay of 1988 mudslinging ON POLITICS



MIAMI -- The primary campaign here in Florida was supposed to be the most valid test of Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas among the 11 Democratic primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.

Instead, it became the political equivalent of a food fight. Rather than a debate between the two leaders for the Democratic nomination, it turned into a case of charge and countercharge on irrelevant issues. Clinton's basic appeal to the middle class has been lost in the din. And so has Tsongas' message of facing reality on economic reform.

The deteriorating quality of the campaign was the inevitable result of the tightening of the contest between the Arkansas governor and the former senator from Massachusetts. From the outset, Clinton was heavily favored to sweep the Southern Super Tuesday primaries, but this is the one state in which Tsongas had a realistic chance of winning a victory that, as the Clinton strategists recognized, would be magnified simply because it came in the South.

But the quality of the campaign also was undermined by the lack of time and resources the candidates could use to reach voters in a large and heterogeneous state. Coming only a week after tests in Maryland, Georgia and six other states, the Super Tuesday campaign became -- once again -- a matter of flying frenetically from one place to another for quick hits that would earn attention on local television news.

The Clinton campaign was the most aggressively negative at the outset, running an attack commercial depicting Tsongas as a closet Republican determined to be a friend to Wall Street. The Clinton organization also accused Tsongas of being less than committed to support for Israel, a touchy issue with Jewish voters in South Florida, and of planning to cut cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits, an obviously important issue all over this state. In all of these cases, the evidence was thin to non-existent.

But Tsongas replied with equally tenuous attacks on Clinton. Waving a stuffed teddy bear he called Pander Bear, he accused Clinton of pandering to Connecticut primary voters by favoring funding for the Sea Wolf submarine that both the Bush administration and Congress now consider superfluous. Then Tsongas himself was off to be photographed at the Holocaust memorial in Miami Beach, a fairly clear piece of pandering in its own right.

Tsongas probably has suffered the most from the diversions into trivia. Clinton established an organization here last November, and enlisted endorsements of many of the state's leading Democrats to help him turn out his supporters. By contrast, Tsongas' opportunity here seemed to rest almost entirely on the national reputation he had earned as a different politician who compensated for his lack of flair by talking sense to voters about the hard choices that would have to be made to strengthen the economy. To the extent that Tsongas now appears like just another politician, he has suffered damage that may not be limited to Florida.

But Tsongas has been a politician under a special pressure. As another Greek from Massachusetts, he believes it is essential to demonstrate that, unlike Michael Dukakis, he will fight back when attacked. "Of course I'm not comfortable with it," he says, "but when I'm hit, I'm going to hit back." To do otherwise, he recognizes, would increase the already significant doubts about whether he would be electable in November.

There are, of course, similar doubts about Bill Clinton, most of them based on the controversies over Gennifer Flowers and his record in avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. He was also touched up late in this campaign by disclosures he was once involved in a real estate deal with a savings and loan operator subject to state regulation. Given that context, it isn't surprising that Clinton decided it was wise to start cutting up Saint Paul. There was the obvious danger that a loss here would be seen as new evidence of doubts about his electability.

But the result has been a campaign that has done little for either candidate. The lesson in the New Hampshire primary seemed to be that the voters are looking for a serious discussion this year.

But here in Florida they have been treated to a reprise of the nonsense of the 1988 campaign. And that can't help either candidate.

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