It's now Clinton's race to lose Tsongas move offers Brown spoiler role

March 20, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Paul E. Tsongas's abrupt pullout yesterday all but clinches the Democratic nomination for Bill Clinton. But the victor doesn't want the race to end yet.

Clinton strategists say their man's chances of defeating President Bush in the fall would be helped if the campaign continues. Many key states have not held their primaries, and the Clinton team would like to have the heightened attention that goes with a contested nomination fight.

"These other states have people and problems and concerns that have to be addressed," Mr. Clinton said yesterday. "I don't want to give any of them any indication that I am taking them for granted."

The biggest challenge for Mr. Clinton right now is figuring out how to engage his sole remaining opponent, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, without being hurt in the process. Clinton aides regard Mr. Brown as a political terrorist and recognize that he has the potential to further damage Mr. Clinton's already dented image.

Mr. Clinton made a brief campaign visit late yesterday to Connecticut, which holds a primary on Tuesday, and was to return to Arkansas today to reassess his plans for the remaining primary and caucus states.

The 45-year-old governor and his advisers were reportedly stunned when Mr. Tsongas, low on cash and facing the prospect of defeat in the New York primary on April 7, suspended his candidacy.

His decision made Mr. Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee, party politicians said. Barring an unforeseen calamity, Mr. Clinton, who has a huge lead in delegates, is likely to lock up the nomination by early June, if not sooner.

"Bill Clinton is going to be the nominee of the party," said John Sasso, who managed 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis' campaign.

Democratic officials have been nearly desperate to get an early nominee this year to give the party time to pull together for the fall campaign. Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee, said yesterday it is "almost beyond imagination" that some new candidate would emerge now, since filing deadlines have passed in most primary states and roughly half the delegates have already been picked.

Another party official said Mr. Clinton "still has some politics to do." The official said Mr. Clinton must still make peace with some important elements of the party that have been cool to his candidacy, including New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and various leaders of organized labor. He also needs to court Democratic members of Congress who remain nervous about the prospect that Republican attacks against Mr. Clinton could harm the entire Democratic ticket in November.

"We have a long way to go," Paul Begala, a Clinton campaign adviser, said yesterday.

Unlike Mr. Bush, who has spent almost 15 years in the national spotlight, Mr. Clinton remains a mystery to most Americans. That is particularly true in places where he has not campaigned, which include some of the most crucial states in the fall election -- California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and New York.

Mr. Clinton's poll ratings have gone up in states where he has campaigned this year, the adviser said. During the 1988 Democratic race, Mr. Dukakis grew in stature as a national figure by trouncing the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in two-man contests in the late primary states. Mr. Clinton might get a similar boost by going head-to-head with Mr. Brown in coming weeks.

"It would make him look very centrist and very rational and very presidential, when compared to Jerry Brown," said Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat.

Mr. Tully, the party strategist, said he hoped Mr. Brown would not choose to play "a harsh spoiler role, an assaultive role" in the concluding phase of the campaign. But that's exactly the course the former California governor headed down in the wake of the Tsongas pullout.

The Brown campaign circulated copies of news clippings and a letter from Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder attacking Mr. Clinton for playing golf at a Little Rock country club that excludes blacks.

Mr. Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor and an unsuccessful presidential candidate this year, said Mr. Clinton had "gravely damaged the Democratic Party by recreating at a racially exclusive club."

Mr. Clinton had played a round of golf Wednesday at the club, which gives him golfing privileges as governor. Mr. Clinton apologized last night and said he would not play there again until blacks are admitted as members.

Veteran politicians have expressed amazement and admiration at Mr. Clinton's resilience after a series of damaging stories about his past, including accusations of marital infidelity and draft dodging during the Vietnam war. More recently, he has faced questions about his investments with a friend who later headed a troubled savings and loan, and unproved allegations involving his wife Hillary's law firm and its dealings with the state government.

"He has withstood torpedoes to the hull of his ship," said Jesse L. Jackson, himself the target of numerous political attacks.

Only yesterday, the Clinton campaign was trying to put the lid on yet another flap, this one involving an upcoming nude photo spread in Playboy magazine featuring a former Miss America who had been accused of having an affair with the governor. The Clinton campaign released a written statement from the woman, Elizabeth Ward, acknowledging that she had met Mr. Clinton but denying "any romantic relationship" with the governor.

In the Playboy article, which is expected to hit newsstands early next month, Miss Ward is quoted as saying that she would neither confirm nor deny that she had had an affair with Mr. Clinton.

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