Democratic song adds some harmony ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

March 20, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

BOSTON -- The surprise withdrawal of former Sen. Paul Tsongas from the Democratic presidential race before the Connecticut and New York primaries was the rational decision of a rational man, faced with odds he had little chance to overcome.

Tsongas was out-organized and out-financed by Gov. Bill Clinton, and beyond that, although he denied it, he was out-messaged in the critical industrial states of Illinois and Michigan. His call for tax incentives to entrepreneurs to create new businesses and jobs, while opposing the middle-class tax cut proposed by Clinton, was simply not appealing to men and women on the assembly lines.

While Tsongas might have survived in his neighboring state of Connecticut next Tuesday, the prospects in New York two weeks later were not good. There, the factors that worked for Clinton in the two Midwest industrial states -- money, organization and message -- figured to play strongly for him again in New York.

Clinton not only won the black and labor vote in Illinois and Michigan but a higher percentage of women supported him than men in spite of the womanizing allegations against him. Military veterans also preferred him in spite of the charges that he tried to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

Those results undermined Tsongas' argument that Clinton was not electable because of the personal baggage he carried, while he himself could attract independents and Republicans with his pro-business posture. But a winning candidate must first cement his own base before reaching out beyond it, and that Tsongas failed to do.

With Tsongas out, former Gov. Jerry Brown, the only other surviving candidate, can be expected to continue to harp on the electability issue against Clinton. Brown's own electability is dismissed by most Democrats but that will not stop him from using the issue to sustain what is clearly emerging now as a long-range effort by Brown to shake up politics going beyond 1992.

As a result, Clinton now faces the sort of pesky heel-nipping that Republican candidate Patrick Buchanan has been administering to President Bush, while not seriously challenging his nomination.

This kind of nagging opposition can be a diversion from preparing for the fall campaign, as Bush has learned. Buchanan is maintaining his candidacy as a means of nudging Bush further rightward, and he has already been successful in some respects.

Brown's continuing in the Democratic race is less likely to pull Clinton to the left simply because more votes in the party these days are in the center, and Clinton knows it. The remaining threat to Clinton is the possibility that some new disclosure of personal misconduct could yet derail him, or persuade someone else to enter the race.

Labor leaders in Michigan, in opposing Clinton as unelectable, urged their troops to vote for Brown or for uncommitted delegates as a way of trying to deadlock the convention and bringing about a brokering of a nominee more to their liking. But that notion went up in the smoke of Clinton's twin victories last Tuesday.

There will be increasing pressure now from Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown and other party leaders for an end to any challenge within the party that could weaken Clinton in the fall. Brown pleaded all last year for an early decision on the party nominee and his wishes appear to be nearing fruition.

Tsongas' withdrawal is a major step toward achieving party harmony well before the Democratic convention in July. And with no Anybody-But-Clinton movement yet in sight beyond Brown's "insurgent" campaign, it will be hard to sustain the charge that Clinton is unelectable. He can be expected now to beat Brown week after week as Michael Dukakis beat Jesse Jackson in the final stage of the 1988 primary season, making Dukakis look all the more like a winner.

Once the Republicans got finished with Dukakis, however, it was another story. That they will do the same to Clinton is the concern that remains among some party leaders, but there seems little they can do about it now.

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