WASHINGTON. — Florida, a geological late arrival, was the last part of what is the continental United States to rise from the ocean. Paul Tsongas probably wishes it had stayed submerged.
The least Southern of all southern states, Florida was Mr. Tsongas' best chance to put sand in the gears of Bill Clinton's machine. Instead, Florida gave maximum momentum to that machine as it rolls toward the real Super Tuesday, next week in Michigan and especially Illinois.
When, in the distant future, narrators are re-telling the Homeric epic of this presidential campaign, they will linger over the inexpressibly sad fact that the lamp of love between Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas was extinguished in the run-up to Super Tuesday.
Mr. Clinton, attacking Mr. Tsongas, shouted, ''Growth first, fairness later -- bull: We never had growth without fairness and we never will.'' Now, nonsense is to be expected from tired candidates who have many more speaking engagements than they have sensible things to say. But Mr. Clinton is exceeding the limits of permissible babble.
His complaint about the 1980s (a.k.a. The Reagan Terror) is that there was growth without fairness. And one can imagine how Mr. Clinton disdains the growth of the Gilded Age and the 1920s. Is he now saying it is better to have no growth than growth without fairness -- that growth should wait until there is consensus about fairness?
According to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Tsongas' sins against fairness include consideration of limiting cost-of-living adjustments of some entitlement programs for the wealthy. Also, Mr. Clinton criticizes Mr. Tsongas for proposing to phase in a 30- to 50-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax over 10 years. If 45 -- cents were added instantly, the cost of a gallon would be, in real terms, what it was in 1950.
For his part, Mr. Tsongas says Mr. Clinton is a ''pander bear'' telling ''blatant'' lies. A century ago an acute student of these things, the novelist Anthony Trollope, noted that in democracies disputes between politicians are fiercest when the real differences are smallest. ''It is the same in religion. The apostle of Christianity and the infidel can meet without a chance of a quarrel; but it is never safe to bring together two men who differ about a saint or a surplice.''
It must get galling for Mr. Clinton, who expected to run as the candidate of unconventional realism against some Tom Harkin-like liberal, to find himself flanked on the moralist-realist side by Mr. Tsongas. Clearly, Mr. Clinton finds Mr. Tsongas' personality grating. Mr. Tsongas does indeed seem to secrete a sticky, cloying rectitude. He resembles a New England Unitarian minister who doesn't claim to have all the truth, but is sure he has all that is available at the moment.
Even before Tuesday's voting, it became official: Yet again, neither party will nominate a serving member of the Congress. Twenty years have passed since the last serving member was nominated (George McGovern) and 32 years since the last member was elected (John F. Kennedy). Nebraska's Sen. Bob Kerrey was knocked out early, partly because he got in six months late: He missed spring training. Iowa's Sen. Harkin got in 45 years late. He is a 1940s labor liberal, part Harry Truman and a little bit like Iowa's Henry Wallace.
In presidential politics, money is the root of all excuses. Senator Harkin, having unfurled the banner of Pure Liberalism, has re-furled it, saying the usual thing, that he had no choice because he had no money to get his message out. He sedulously misses the point: His message got out loud and clear and if people had liked it, he would have had pots of money.
Governor Clinton does have pots of money and probably will be nominated, even though he has ominously high ''negatives.'' Indeed, he is winning partly because of them: People admire the way he slogs on, carrying all that baggage. But the baggage remains and, come autumn, Republicans will not be reticent about it.
However, Mr. Clinton will be running against a president repudiated by one-third of the Republican Party and two-thirds of any Republican president's base of true believers. George Bush, who has the entire executive branch at his disposal, has allowed the conversation of the campaign to be controlled by a columnist on sabbatical. Amazing.
Mr. Bush is the most potent negative campaigner in history: The more he campaigns, the more his own negatives rise. His best strategy would be to go to earth in Bermuda until November, emerging only to wage short wars against Third World miscreants.
Much will change between now and November, but today a reasonable wager would be that Election Day will see another reduction in voter turnout. Tens of millions of people may choose not to choose between a Democratic nominee they do not quite trust and a failed president they no longer respect.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.