Brown deals Clinton setback in Conn Jerry Brown raises specter of chaos for the Democrats

March 25, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.'s upset victory in Connecticut last night has suddenly raised the possibility of political chaos in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

It is always possible, of course, that Bill Clinton will rebound in the New York primary two weeks down the road. Although tarnished, he has already shown that he is a tough and tenacious campaigner.

But the Arkansas governor cannot explain away the signs of weakness he showed in Connecticut only a week after 2-to-1 triumphs in Illinois and Michigan put him on what seemed to be an irreversible rush to the nomination.

Mr. Clinton may argue that the voters didn't really know his tormentor, Mr. Brown, or that he didn't have adequate time to make himself known to Connecticut Democrats or that the vote for Paul E. Tsongas skewed the results. But all of that sounds like "the dog ate my homework." Mr. Clinton has been embarrassed by a candidate he disdains.

The setback to Mr. Clinton is made all the more severe by the doubts about him that have been growing within the Democratic Party and political community even as he apparently has been marching inexorably on the nomination. As in Connecticut, the primary turnout has been consistently low -- everywhere except in the two states won by Mr. Tsongas, New Hampshire and Maryland. Such a trend is not a sign of political enthusiasm.

Moreover, Mr. Clinton has seen his "negatives" rise in opinion polls even as he was winning -- a reversal of the usual experience in primary contests. Voters keep saying in exit polls that they have doubts about him and wish there were other candidates available.

But whatever the doubts about Mr. Clinton growing out of the Connecticut vote, it is hard to write a scenario that delivers the nomination to anyone else.

Mr. Brown has shown an ability to draw young and independent voters into the primary process, largely with his message that the political system is corrupted by the way it is financed. And he has been successful in the last two weeks in tapping into

unrest among union voters looking for a champion to save their jobs.

But Jerry Brown is anathema to the regulars of the Democratic Party with memories long enough to be familiar with his erratic history as a political leader who found a new issue and a new approach every few months.

What that means is that Mr. Brown could expect little, if any, support from the 17 percent of the delegates to the Democratic Convention who are classed as "superdelegates" and are officially unpledged. They are largely party officials and officeholders, just the kind of people Mr.Brown is running against.

And without superdelegates, any candidate for the nomination would have had to win 60 percent of all the delegates available in primaries starting with New Hampshire. There simply are not enough primaries left for the California Democrat to accomplish that trick.

The weakness of Mr. Clinton inevitably will give rise to speculation that Mr. Tsongas should revive the campaign he suspended just five days ago. Exit polling suggested he would ** have won Connecticut if he had been on the ballot. And he has the very practical advantage of having his name already on the ballot in the later primaries.

But the Tsongas message never connected with two core constituencies of the Democratic Party, blacks and blue-collar white voters, which is why he lost in both Illinois and Michigan and seemed to be facing an uphill struggle in New York April 7.

Absent a return by Mr. Tsongas, the only possibility might be a late candidacy by a "third man" alternative candidate who could win many of the superdelegates and pick up the leftovers from other candidates already on the sidelines. In that case, the most logical candidate might be Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the 1988 vice presidential nominee and the one politician old enough, at 71, to run such a campaign without being accused of opportunism.

But, again, that is a scenario that requires you to accept 24 impossible things before breakfast.

The one certainty now is that the stakes have become enormous for Bill Clinton in the New York primary. On the face of it, he is well-prepared with a strong organizational presence, key endorsements and the money to pay for an intensive advertising campaign.

But New York primaries are tricky. Candidates must deal with issues, such as policy toward Israel and gay rights, that offer countless opportunities to stumble. And money is far less important because of the intense news media attention.

Bill Clinton is still the front-runner, but Connecticut has made him damaged goods.

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