ROCKFORD, Ill. -- With the Democratic nomination potentially riding on the outcome, Bill Clinton and Paul E. Tsongas are waging a sharply personal, and increasingly nasty, battle for votes in Tuesday's Illinois primary.
For months, the Clinton campaign has been pointing toward Illinois as the decisive contest of the '92 race, the place where a big victory would make the Arkansas governor the party's presumptive nominee.
And with only four days to go until the election, a big victory here appears within his reach.
Mr. Clinton is the favorite, according to politicians here, with Mr. Tsongas next and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. third.
Even Mr. Tsongas seems to be acknowledging as much. He is attempting to play down the significance of the Illinois test, insisting he needs only to be "competitive" here. The Connecticut and New York primaries in late March and early April, he says, will be the "real showdown."
While Mr. Tsongas plays for time, Mr. Clinton is acting more and more as if he's already won. He's talking about who his running mate might be, saying Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley should be considered and yesterday adding Mr. Tsongas' name to that list, before admitting that he was being a bit premature.
But as the candidates woo the 6 million voters of this sprawling, economically struggling state, an air of success infuses the Clinton campaign, while Mr. Tsongas is struggling to fend off the aroma of defeat. The Tsongas campaign continues to suffer from disorganization and a lack of focus, making it more difficult for him to gethis message out to voters.
The two men crossed paths yesterday at Chicago's Midway Airport, a fitting place for an encounter, since both are shuttling between there and Detroit every day, in order to feed the local TV stations in each market fresh images for their evening newscasts.
For Mr. Tsongas, the airport was also the scene the day before of one of those minor campaign incidents that sometimes assume an exaggerated, symbolic meaning: His chartered jet got stuck in a mudhole on a taxiway, bogging down his campaign for about two hours.
And in fact, ever since winning New Hampshire last month, Mr. Tsongas has been trying to get his candidacy back on track, with little success. Except for a narrow win in Maryland, he has been unable to carry a primary state outside New England.
"I don't know where Tsongas goes if he gets beat in both" Illinois and Michigan, says George Stephanopoulos, deputy manager of the Clinton campaign. "Where does his money come from? His whole rationale is pierced."
The Tsongas rationale these days is that he is the Democrat with the best chance of defeating President Bush, on the basis of a recent national poll that showed him running even with the incumbent, one point better than Mr. Clinton did.
Mr. Tsongas' message, echoed in campaign commercials he is airing in Illinois, is that Mr. Clinton is "our most vulnerable candidate," because of lingering questions about his character.
A new Tsongas ad hits squarely at the character question, saying of the former Massachusetts senator: "He's no Bill Clinton, that's for sure. . . . He's not afraid of the truth."
Indeed, many leading Democrats are extremely nervous about the prospect of Mr. Clinton's heading the national ticket this fall, because of fears about how the Bush campaign might exploit allegations of marital infidelity and draft dodging.
During a tour of a cheesecake factory yesterday in northwest Chicago, Mr. Clinton again tried to dispel those worries.
"I've been called everything but a blue goose, and the voters keep on voting for me," said the five-term governor. "If I had done anything terrible, if there was some great flaw in my character, I wouldn't have served as governor all this time."
Mr. Tsongas, he contended, is "frustrated" over his poor showing in the recent round of primaries.
"When people lose political debates, they resort to personal attacks on their opponents," said Mr. Clinton, who insists that he has leveled no personal attacks on his rival. However, Mr. Clinton is running TV commercials against Mr. Tsongas that paint a misleading picture of the Tsongas economic program, by making it seem that he favors a cut in Social Security benefits.
For Mr. Clinton, more is at stake in the St. Patrick's Day election than a share of the 164 Illinois delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention. A primary victory here would be his first outside the South and the first in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Tsongas on neutral ground.
Illinois, a perennial battleground in presidential elections, is also a bellwether of sorts in nomination races. Except for 1988, when homestate Sen. Paul Simon won here, the victor in the Illinois primary has gone on to win the Democratic nomination every time since 1976.
"Illinois is the first state in which you have a big city, the suburbs, the small towns and the farms," said Kevin O'Keefe, the Clinton state coordinator. "It's like the whole country, just in one state."
Mr. Clinton began organizing Illinois last August, well before he announced his candidacy. His wife, Hillary, grew up in a Chicago suburb and his campaign manager is a Chicagoan who also managed Mr. Daley's successful mayoral campaign.
As in most other states, Mr. Clinton enjoys the backing of virtually the entire Democratic establishment. He also has the support of the Chicago "machine," still a vital advantage in primary contests, where organizational strength can be brought to bear.
The Clinton advantage includes expected support among blacks, who may cast almost one-fifth of the Democratic primary vote, as well as working-class whites, who represent about one-quarter of the electorate.