Bush, Clinton look to Nov. showdown Victory in New York can seal it for Clinton.

March 18, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas has seized a lead in the Democratic presidential campaign so imposing he is in position to effectively nail down the nomination if he can win the New York primary April 7.

Mr. Clinton's triumphs in Illinois and Michigan have wiped away the final traces of the stigma he carried as a Southern regional candidate and put his closest pursuer, former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, in a must-win position in both the Connecticut primary next Tuesday and the showdown in New York.

There are, however, two small clouds still on the horizon for the Arkansas Democrat. The first, difficult to quantify, is the lingering fear among party leaders that there may be some further disclosure of something in Mr. Clinton's past that would further compromise his chances of defeating President Bush in November. It is that fear that is behind the unwillingness of many party leaders who are uncommitted delegates to fall in behind Mr. Clinton even as his march on the nomination appears inexorable.

Mr. Clinton's delegate total moved past 900 on the strength of Illinois and Michigan returns, but he needs significant backing among those unpledged super-delegates to reach the necessary without having to accumulate the delegates in primary after primary throughout the spring.

The second problem for the front runner is the new credibility given to the challenge of former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California by his success in running second, ahead of Mr. Tsongas, in the Michigan primary. Mr. Brown's harsh attack on Mr. Clinton's "electability" is likely to become a major theme of the Californian's campaign the rest of the way -- and just the kind of argument Mr. Clinton does not want to be forced to confront week after week.

Mr. Clinton called his latest successes "a victory for the forces of change" as he turned back to the Northeast, where he earlier lost the only primaries he seriously contested, in New Hampshire and Maryland.

Predictably, Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Brown both promised to continue their campaigns through the primary season to the convention in New York in July. Those avowals were being taken more seriously than usual. The thinking in the Tsongas campaign is that he must remain on the field as an alternative if Mr. Clinton stumbles somewhere along the way. Mr. Tsongas seemed to be suggesting as much when he told reporters shortly before the votes were counted that his goal is "to be the last one standing when it's all over."

The question about the Massachusetts Democrat, however, is whether he can continue to raise the money for a full-scale jTC campaign unless he puts himself back into the picture in Connecticut and, more to the point, New York.

Mr. Brown, by contrast, is expected to remain in the race all the way through the California primary on the final day of delegate selection June 2. Unlike his rivals, Mr. Brown is conducting a low budget, live-off-the-land campaign that requires relatively little money to sustain. And he is convinced that some of the states most hospitable to his maverick message -- including New York, Wisconsin and Oregon as well as California -- still lie ahead.

Mr. Brown's continuing presence in the field might have an effect quite different from what he foresees. Because he is anathema to Democratic leaders, any threat he appeared to pose to Mr. Clinton might induce more of those uncommitted delegates to ** board the Clinton bandwagon sooner than they otherwise might be inclined to do.

So far Mr. Brown has won only two states outright, Colorado and Nevada, and finished in a virtual tie with Mr. Tsongas in the Maine caucuses. In each case, he has isolated an element of the Democratic coalition unwilling to accept the other candidates -- anti-nuclear power activists in Maine and environmentalists in Colorado, for example. And he did the same thing in Michigan in playing on the economic concerns of auto workers. Mr. Brown also has shown an ability to attract more young voters and independents into the Democratic process with his complaints about the corruption of the fund-raising process.

But his principal role the rest of the way is expected to be that of antagonist to Mr. Clinton. As he demonstrated in a debate in Illinois Sunday, Mr. Brown is willing to voice the doubts about Mr. Clinton other politicians harbor privately.

Thus, although it is Paul Tsongas who is running closest to the front runner in the delegate totals, it is Jerry Brown who seems to have the most direct potential for making life difficult for Bill Clinton.

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