DETROIT -- Gov. Bill Clinton's clear-cut twin victories in yesterday's Michigan and Illinois primaries establish him for the first time as an impressive vote-getter outside his native South and emphatically confirm his status as the Democratic front-runner.
But those victories won't end the nagging challenges of Paul E. Tsongas and Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. or their questions about Mr. Clinton's electability.
Mr. Brown's second-place finish in Michigan, not totally unexpected after his intensive focus on the plight of the auto industry here in the past week, gives him a strong incentive to press on with his self-styled "insurgent campaign." He and Mr. Tsongas, the man he beat out for second place here, both say they will go all the way to the Democratic convention in New York in July.
In the Republican competition in Michigan and Illinois, President Bush's duplication of Mr. Clinton's double victory increases the pressure on Patrick J. Buchanan to end his challenge. Mr. Buchanan, criticized by labor in these two auto-industry states for buying his wife a German luxury car, failed to match the strong protest vote against Mr. Bush that he attained in earlier contests.
Mr. Buchanan said flatly last night that while "candor does
command us to concede that geography and time were not on our side in the past two weeks," he was "still getting a quarter or a third of the vote" against the president, "and that's why we are going to keep right on rolling."
Mr. Buchanan has vowed to continue running in selected states through the California primary on June 2, while hedging about maintaining his challenge into the GOP convention in August.
Mr. Tsongas, while finishing second in Illinois, nevertheless was the day's big loser in trailing Mr. Brown in Michigan. That outcome shakes the Democratic pecking order somewhat, with Mr. Brown tapping anti-Washington sentiment to build a case for replacing Mr. Tsongas as the alternative to Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Brown, who is running a lean, low-budget campaign, is not as dependent on campaign contributions as Mr. Tsongas, who has a well-staffed organization. Mr. Tsongas may find such funds harder to come by after yesterday's results. Mr. Brown, meanwhile, boasts that his now-famous "800" telephone number generated $100,000 in a single night after the candidates' most recent debate.
Mr. Tsongas is looking to next Tuesday's primary in his neighboring state of Connecticut to put his campaign back on track. But even if he wins, that achievement is likely to be discounted as a home-region victory.
Consequently, the next major test for all three Democrats will come three weeks from now in New York. Mr. Clinton looks tough to beat there, too, especially after Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said the other day that he expected the Arkansas governor to be the nominee.
Mr. Clinton's achievement in winning easily in both Illinois and Michigan, including a strong labor vote, should do much to counter the continuing warnings of Mr. Brown and Mr. Tsongas that the series of allegations of personal and ethical misconduct may make him unelectable.
Each time a brewing scandal has dropped on him this year, Mr. Clinton has hung in and survived. But there remains concern among many party leaders that some other, unspecified development may ultimately finish him off -- or at least render him easy pickings for the Republicans in November.
That viewpoint, first voiced openly by Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska in advance of the Georgia primary won by Mr. Clinton, was repeated dramatically by Mr. Brown in last Sunday night's Democratic debate in Chicago.
Mr. Brown, alluding to newspaper stories, charged that Mr. Clinton as governor had "funneled" state contracts to the law firm of his wife, Hillary. Mr. Clinton denied the charge, and the allegation appears not to have damaged his standing much with Democrats and independents who went to the polls yesterday.
In fact, Mr. Clinton's energetic defense of his wife in that debate may have generated support for him. While preliminary polls had him comfortably ahead in both states, the size of his winning margins was impressive, particularly in labor-dominated Michigan.
Here, many organized labor leaders were cool to him as governor of a state that has a right-to-work law and as a proponent of "fast-track" negotiation with Mexico, strongly opposed by organized labor as a threat to American jobs.
Support of the same fast-track approach undoubtedly also hurt Mr. Tsongas in Michigan, as well as his unwillingness to back a key labor litmus test -- rehiring of striking employees over strikebreakers at the conclusion of a strike. Mr. Tsongas argued that forced arbitration was the best way of assuring labor peace and fairness.
During the Sunday TV debate, Mr. Tsongas was relatively quiet on the sidelines. Mr. Brown can be counted on to encourage a public perception that Mr. Tsongas is now an irrelevant factor in a race coming down to himself and Mr. Clinton. Such a lineup would cast the nomination fight in clearer traditional terms, with Mr. Clinton as the more moderate candidate and Mr. Brown as the more liberal.
Among the Republicans, Mr. Buchanan, while nudging Mr. Bush to the right on some conservative issues, now poses no threat to the president's renomination. With Mr. Bush planning to campaign less and attend to White House business more, there is likely to be much less public attention paid to the Republican race.
That fact will put greater focus on Mr. Clinton's ability to persevere -- and on continued speculation about whether the worst is behind him or whether there is perhaps another damaging shoe to be dropped.