Clinton must deal with Brown irritant ON POLITICS


March 23, 1992|By Jack Germond And Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With former Sen. Paul Tsongas out of the Democratic presidential race, Gov. Bill Clinton must now decide how to cope with his lone remaining challenger, pesky former Gov. Jerry Brown, who has already demonstrated a willingness to toss live political grenades his way at every opportunity.

It was Brown who,at the end of one earlier televised debate among the Democratic contenders,directly raised the subject of the allegations of personal misconduct against Clinton, seeming defend the woman who had made the charges. "Every time a woman makes a claim," Brown said, "she is always viewed as either lying or a bimbo."

In another debate in Dallas, challenging Clinton's civil rights credentials, Brown held up a photo of Clinton and Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia visiting a boot camp for youth offenders, mostly black. He said the inmates "looked like a bunch of Willie Hortons" and compared Clinton and Nunn to a pair of "colonial masters."

And in a third debate in Chicago last Sunday, Brown charged that Clinton as governor of Arkansas was "funneling money to his wife's law firm for state business" and that "his wife's law firm is representing clients before the state of Arkansas agencies."

Clinton has grown progressively more irritated at Brown, telling him in the Dallas debate exchange to "chill out" and stoutly defending his wife, Hillary, in the Chicago debate, telling Brown he "ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You're not worth being on the same platform with my wife."

In Michigan the next day, after Clinton had accused Brown of a conflict of interest involving his old law firm, Brown charged that Clinton was using "the Nixon technique" of counterattacking instead of answering accusations against himself.

In all this, Brown has used the debates as a means of casting himself as the anti-establishment candidate, first against the entire field but increasingly against the front-running Clinton. Even before Tsongas withdrew, Brown was talking about the race being between Clinton and himself.

This game plan of Brown's poses a question for Clinton. Now that the field has been narrowed and only Brown is left standing to oppose him, should Clinton continue to debate him, with good reason to expect that Brown will continue to lob the grenades at him?

Clinton, with a wide delegate lead and plenty of money to buy his own television time, doesn't need the air time nearly as much as Brown does.

Clinton, who deftly used Brown's attack on his wife in the Chicago debate to portray himself as a defender of womanhood, could decline to participate in these remaining debates, at least until Brown apologizes to Hillary Clinton. That, however, is not likely to happen as long as Brown intends to continue in the race as the only obstacle between Clinton and the nomination.

Clinton no doubt will try in the weeks ahead to ignore Brown, focusing instead on the man he expects to face in the general election, President Bush. But Brown will not be easily ignored, as labors to build an anti-establishment political movement that he now acknowledges he intends to carry on beyond the 1992 campaign.

Although Brown's now-famous 800 telephone number is bringing enough money to keep him going, it is not enough to mount a serious challenge to the Arkansas governor. Also, Brown is anathema to regular party leaders in light of his sledgehammer assault on politics as usual, and his continued presence only enhances Clinton's chances of enlisting them.

Finally, the prospect of running against Brown in the remaining presidential primaries holds the promise for Clinton of racking up a string of easy victories in state after state on Tuesday after Tuesday through the primary season ending in June. By the time the California primary rolls around on June 2, it probably won't matter what happens there.

Still, Brown has demonstrated he is not reluctant to say or do what he can to upset the applecart. He has been scrambling all year to get attention on a low budget and it will be no easy task for Clinton simply to brush him off like an irritating gnat.

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