Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas in a sense sang former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.'s song about the inordinate role of money in presidential politics in his withdrawal statement here Thursday. In lamenting that lack of money to compete with Gov. Bill Clinton in paid television had forced him to quit the Democratic nomination race, Mr. Tsongas made a case for the argument that equal segments of the public airwaves be made available without cost to bona fide candidates, as a means of leveling the playing field.
The ability to buy television time is the one aspect of today's presidential campaigning that most severely punishes the candidate with little voter recognition and special-interest support. Mr. Tsongas, having won eight primaries and caucuses, and having amassed more than 400 convention delegates, had every reason to press on in this season of doubt about the front-runner -- except money.
The two Democratic candidates in the last two presidential elections who managed to hold on -- the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in 1988 and Mr. Brown so far this year -- ran unorthodox campaigns not dependent on costly television buys, and in the process they were reduced largely to sideshows. Mr. Jackson became a weekly punching bag for the well-heeled Michael S. Dukakis in the latter stages of the 1988 primary campaign, and Mr. Brown is likely to be the same for Mr. Clinton in the coming weeks.
But for Mr. Tsongas to argue that his message was working and would have prevailed except for lack of money is highly debatable. He had the opportunity in numerous televised debates to sell that message. He said the reason it worked in smaller states was because he wasn't snowed under by Clinton television ads defining his message in unfavorable ways, as he was in the larger states. But in those larger states, where black and blue-collar voters were significant, Mr. Tsongas' pro-business focus simply didn't wash. He disagreed with litmus-test labor positions, and no amount of money could have bailed him out with most union members.
The stunning upset of Sen. Alan Dixon by Carol Mosely Braun in the Democratic primary here could have an important effect on the presidential campaign, assuming a close contest between President Bush and Mr. Clinton.
As the first black woman ever nominated for a Senate seat, Ms. Braun can be expected to benefit from a turnout among black voters far beyond what otherwise would be expected. And that, in turn, could be a critical factor in making Mr. Clinton competitive in a major state that has been voting consistently Republican in presidential elections but by relatively small margins. In 1988, for example, Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Dukakis with only 50.7 percent of the vote.
Post-election analyses indicated, moreover, that Mr. Dukakis lost largely because black participation was so low, the factor likely to be reversed with Ms. Braun on the ballot. Mr. Dukakis ran 6 percent ahead of 1984 nominee Walter F. Mondale in downstate Illinois but 4 percent behind him in Chicago, where the black vote is concentrated.
Ms. Braun begins as a pronounced underdog against the Republican nominee, Richard S. Williamson, a Chicago lawyer and former White House and congressional aide, simply because recent history has shown black candidates losing 12 percent to 15 percent of the white vote simply because of race. But if blacks and women vote in disproportionate numbers, the race will be competitive.
There is sobering news for the Democrats in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll because it shows Mr. Clinton's negatives at 37 percent, the same as his positives. The usual pattern is for a candidate who has been winning a string of primaries to enjoy a halo effect -- meaning stronger approval ratings after each triumph. That was the case, for example, when Mr. Dukakis was defeating Mr. Jackson during the late primaries four years ago. But Mr. Clinton's negatives rose even on the day after he won in both Illinois and Michigan.
Mr. Bush also has high negatives, but they are more related to his performance than to questions about his character -- and thus may be more susceptible to change if the economy improves.