WASHINGTON -- There is a very real danger, perhaps inevitable, that the Democratic Party will draw some mistaken inferences from Gov. Bill Clinton's sweep of the Southern primaries on Super Tuesday.
The goal of the original sponsors of the regional primary was to revise the party's delegate-selection sytem in the South might be nominated. On the surface, that goal was met in spades as the Arkansas governor won across the board.
But defeating Paul Tsongas, another Greek from Massachusetts, is one thing and defeating President Bush, politically tarnished though he may be, is quite another. And there were clear warning signs for the Democrats in the fine print of the Super Tuesday results.
The possibility of a Democrat winning a few Southern states in November rests on the premise that he will be able to make a respectable showing among relatively conservative white Democrats and score a landslide among black voters. That is just what Jimmy Carter managed in 1976. But it should not be forgotten that even Carter, with his appeal to Southern pride in seeking to become the first presidential nominee from the region since the Civil War, carried Southern states only because of his overwhelming margins in the black community.
Clinton's performance Tuesday doesn't suggest he is positioned to build the same coalition this year. In Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana the total primary vote dropped sharply from 1988. Turnout also declined in Florida despite the fact it was the only state in which Tsongas made any significant effort.
To some degree, the decline in total turnout could be traced to the decline among black voters who, unsurprisingly, were not as enthusiastic about Bill Clinton as they were about Jesse Jackson four years ago. The black vote dropped 69 percent in Tennessee, 55 percent in Mississippi and 22 percent in Florida. But the lagging black vote could not be the sole reason for a drop of more than 300,000 votes in Texas and a decline of almost 40 percent in Louisiana. On the contrary, the figures suggest somewhat less enthusiasm among both white and black voters in the region.
The relative weakness among blacks could be critical in November. A strong case can be made that Michael S. Dukakis lost both Illinois and Pennsylvania in 1988 because there was a sharp drop in black participation from that behind Walter F. Mondale four years earlier. Among whites the problem may be the political baggage Clinton is carrying from the Gennifer Flowers episode and the controversy over his draft history. Exit polls showed one-fourth of Southern Democratic voters had doubts about Clinton's integrity.
None of this means that Clinton is necessarily incapable of defeating President Bush in November. But it does mean that the Democratic Party would be kidding itself to believe he could do it by sweeping the South as he did in the primaries and Jimmy Carter did in 1976.
Instead, Clinton would have to put together a combination of states very much like the one Dukakis targeted in 1988 -- including California, New York, two or three of the other major industrial states and some of the more Democratic states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, West Virginia, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. What this means, in turn, is that Clinton still must demonstrate his drawing power in the Rust Belt, as he has a good opportunity to do in Illinois and Michigan next Tuesday.
It is already clear the Arkansas governor will be put to the test before it is all over. If Tsongas can be competitive in Illinois and Michigan, the outcome won't be certain until after the primaries in New York and Pennsylvania at the earliest.
There is also the possibility that the third man in the Democratic field, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., will peel off enough delegates along the way to keep the race open until the final primaries in California and New Jersey June 2. It is obvious Brown can be a factor in Michigan as well as California -- in which he may have a significant constituency.
Such a prolonged contest may tell a great deal more about the potential of Bill Clinton than the results of Super Tuesday.