Clinton to the Fore

March 11, 1992

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's sweep of the South, including swing-state Florida, puts former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas in a defensive, must-win situation heading into next week's primaries in Illinois and Michigan. These upper Midwest states are neutral ground for both candidates, and as such have more significance than yesterday's much-touted Super Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the resilience and organization shown by Mr. Clinton were impressive enough to make him the undisputed front-runner for the first time in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Once again he displayed an ability to attract black, labor and lower-income voters, his party's traditional constituency. And once again Mr. Tsongas appealed to upscale, suburban voters while handily taking home-state Massachusetts and neighboring Rhode Island.

These results are sure to spur speculation about a Clinton-Tsongas ticket (the names no longer switched interchangeably) -- a prospect distasteful to many labor union leaders with a lot of clout in Michigan. Their tactic may well be to keep the nomination from being foreclosed before the national convention in July in the hope that delegates will spring free and nominate another candidate: Cuomo, Bentsen, Nunn, Gore, Bradley, etc.

On the Republican side yesterday, President Bush was constantly dogged by a strong protest vote going to conservative TV commentator Pat Buchanan or, in small numbers, to former Ku Kluxer David Duke. The president's huge margin in delegates hardly lessened White House concern about opinion polls showing his approval rating dropping under 40 percent.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bush has the nomination well in hand and Mr. Buchanan sooner or later will have to decide how much longer he will continue to tear down his party's titular leader. Some of his supporters are content to lose the 1992 election in hopes of controlling the GOP from that time forward, but Mr. Buchanan has not as yet adopted so radical a course.

Usually, it is the left fringe of the Democratic Party that is more interested in winning nominations than elections. But with the exception of the third-place Jerry Brown revolt, the Democrats seem on course toward the selection of a centrist Clinton-Tsongas ticket barring a winning late entry or an upheaval in the New York convention. This should be a sobering thought for President Bush, who has moved starboard to deal with the Buchanan challenge even though political wisdom preaches capture of the center as the first order.

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