As Brown looks to labor, everyone looks to numbers

GERMOND & WITCOVER

March 14, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

Detroit

Ever since former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California entered the race for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, the rap against him has been that there is nothing wrong with his message of the corrupting influence of money in politics that couldn't be cured with another messenger.

The argument is that "Governor Moonbeam" can't be nominated or elected, and that attitude is particularly pertinent in Michigan in advance of Tuesday's primary.

With labor's favorite candidate, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, out of the race, the important labor vote here is up for grabs, and by all rights Mr. Brown should have a strong claim on it as a result of his pro-labor record as governor.

This is particularly so because the other two Democratic candidates, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, have taken positions on key labor issues not pleasing to labor's leadership.

Both men support fast-track trade negotiations with Mexico, which labor says will cost American jobs. Mr. Clinton comes from a right-to-work state, and Mr. Tsongas opposes striker replacement legislation sought by labor.

To counter the argument, Mr. Brown has been emphasizing his own record here along with his now-familiar harangue against the system.

Washington The political cliche of the moment is that the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has become a numbers game -- piling up delegate totals.

And, like most cliches, this one is accurate.

But perceptions and expectations still remain important. MrClinton's sweep in the South last week carried more weight than it otherwise might have because it appeared there was a genuine contest between him and Mr. Tsongas in the Florida primary.

It was a notion based on two opinion polls taken a week beforthe voting and showing such a huge undecided vote that the polls were virtually meaningless.

But the operative point was that the press and politicacommunity treated Florida as a closer race than it ever was.

Now the pressure from the expectations game shifts onto Mr. Clinton. The new conventional wisdom is that the Arkansas governor is rolling inexorably toward the Democratic nomination and should win both the Illinois and Michigan primaries Tuesday.

Thus, if he should falter in either one, such a loss would be treated far more seriously than it might deserve.

The other side of that coin is, of course, that a victory by Mr. Tsongas in either state would also be given more weight than might be justified. The consensus among the wise guys these days is that Mr. Tsongas' weaknesses as a candidate are finally putting a ceiling on what he can accomplish.

If he wins a big-state primary, that thinking will have to be re-examined.

This question of atmospherics is especially important when candidate such as Mr. Clinton is holding an imposing lead in delegates but still has miles to go to before he actually locks up the nomination.

He has 700 now and needs 2,145. But he needs to persuade th800 or so delegates who are either unpledged, uncommitted or otherwise free to swing behind him to do so before, as the politicians always say, "the train leaves the station."

Four years ago, for example, Michael S. Dukakis was able tattract many of the delegates who were free to move once he got by the New York primary and it became apparent he was the only candidate other than the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson with the resources to continue through the remaining primaries.

Chicago The Democratic primary schedule is giving the candidates a breather this week, if you can call it that.

Mr. Tsongas expressed satisfaction that he had six days tspend between two states -- Michigan and Illinois -- rather than the 11 states of last week.

That gives the voters in those states "a full three days apiece" tjudge the candidates.

No wonder the voters have such reservations about the process.

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