WASHINGTON -- Even after a big Super Tuesday victory that shoved him to the front of an ever-diminishing pack, presidential hopeful Bill Clinton could still be a long way from securing enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination.
A new Democratic rule requiring delegates to be apportioned according to the candidate's share of the primary or caucus vote -- as opposed to the Republicans' "winner-take-all" award -- could make it a slow road to the 2,145 delegates needed to clinch the nomination if other candidates stick around to share in the wealth.
"It's a lot harder than it has been in the past [to win the necessary majority] because of the new rule," says Bob Beckel, campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984.
After sweeping through the South on Tuesday, the Arkansas governor now lays claim to 707 delegates, one-third of the majority needed to be the nominee, as compared to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas' 349 and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.'s 81.
But because of the proportional representation rule, in which any candidate who wins at least 15 percent of the vote is entitled to a share of delegates, Mr. Clinton could win next week's primaries in Illinois and Michigan and every remaining primary by 66 percent, and still be several dozen delegates shy of the magic number.
In that case -- if no candidate wins 2,145 of the 4,288 voting delegates by the end of the primary season -- the wooing begins for the uncommitted delegates, including the 72 delegates pledged to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who dropped out of the race, and the 772 "super-delegates," those elected officials and Democratic Party officials who can declare their allegiance to a candidate at any time.
"It all depends on how long Clinton battles Tsongas," Mr. Beckel says. "If it goes on a long time, it's not likely Clinton will put together [the delegates needed for the nomination] until after the last primary, when he'll have to scramble to get super-delegates and uncommitteds."
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow, who strongly opposes the proportional representation rule because it delaysthe emergence of a clear nominee, believes that if all three Democratic candidates remain in the race through the primaries, "it could be very divisive at the convention."
Even Mr. Brown, not perceived as a viable nominee, could still earn a substantial number of delegates if he wins only 15 percent in future primaries. Critics of the new rule, forged after the 1988 campaign in a nod to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, say it skews the delegate count in favor of trailing candidates.
In contrast, on the GOP side with its winner-take-all primaries, President Bush already has more than half the delegates he needs to capture the Republican nomination even though challenger Patrick J. Buchanan has been biting off sizable chunks of the popular vote.
Next week's Illinois and Michigan primaries, states where Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas are campaigning aggressively for the 295 candidates at stake, should indicate how the delegate race will unfold for the Democrats, say political strategists.
If Mr. Tsongas makes a strong showing, both he and Mr. Clinton, along with Mr. Brown, will likely proceed from primary to primary all the way to the final round on June 2, slowly racking up delegates and dragging out the race to the convention in July.
But if Mr. Clinton's newfound momentum continues and he wins next week's primaries handily, "it gives him strong claim to the nomination and puts him in a very commanding position to go out and get the delegates he needs," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.
In such a case, mathematics would give way to chemistry, says Mark Siegel, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
"There's a threshold point where you look like you're going to be the nominee -- and the Kerrey delegates and the Harkin delegates and the uncommitted delegates all come your way," Mr. Siegel said.
But a wild card in this year's Democratic race is the trepidation some party leaders feel about Mr. Clinton, who fought allegations of marital infidelity and accusations of draft-dodging earlier this year, and is still haunted by the specter of new charges surfacing.
Because of the unease, some believe Mr. Tsongas will stay in the race as long as his money holds out -- even if he does poorly next week-- just in case Mr. Clinton's candidacy falls apart. Also because of this skittishness, the super-delegates could play an especially important role.
"They'll be sending a strong signal about how comfortable the Democrats feel about Clinton," Mr. Garin says. "As Clinton moves forward with delegates, the super-delegates are the ones who will ratify his presumptive nomination."