Clinton must do battle on two different fronts ON POLITICS

Newswatch ... ON POLITICS

March 26, 1992|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Jesse Jackson, the sometime political analyst, had it right the other day when he said Bill Clinton "is running a campaign to win the nomination but that's different from winning the people."

Leaving the rubble of his defeat in Connecticut,Clinton has two tasks ahead of him.The easier is accumulating the 2,145 delegates to assure him the Democratic presidential nomination.The more difficult is persuading his party and the electorate that he is a legitimate contender against President Bush in November.

With the 991 delegates already in his bag, the Arkansas governor can reach the magic number by winning just over 40 percent of those that remain to be chosen in primaries and caucuses that run through June 2. If, as can reasonably be assumed, he were to capture most of the 772 superdelegates who are officially unpledged -- most of them party officials and officeholders -- Clinton could do it with less than 40 percent.

It is doubtful that Clinton can lock up the nomination before that final day on which 700 delegates will be chosen if, as now seems likely, the Ohio primary, with a prize of 151, is moved back from May 5 under a court order to share the spotlight June 2 with California, which chooses 348. But it is also clear that Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas or any other pursuer has a steep uphill climb to deny him the nomination.

The questions about Clinton's bona fides as a general election candidate persist, however. The consistently low turnouts in primaries -- the only exceptions were in New Hampshire and Maryland, both won by Tsongas -- suggest a clear lack of enthusiasm for the front-runner. So do opinion polls that show his negatives as high as his positives and rising even when he wins. And so do exit polls, such as the one taken in Connecticut, that show almost half the voters have doubts about his character and integrity.

Clinton's response to adversity has been to put his head down and keep on keeping on. Like George Bush, he is an extremely tenacious politician. And his toughness has paid the necessary dividends, saving his skin with a decent second place in New Hampshire, then giving him a string of successes in the South and, more importantly, Illinois and Michigan.

Based on that track record, the reasonable expectation now is that Clinton will once again play "the comeback kid" in New York. He has superior organization and money there, and his only rival, Jerry Brown, may find it far more difficult to get a foothold in such a huge state than it was in places like Colorado and Connecticut, the only states in which he has won primaries outright.

It is also true, nonetheless, that Clinton has been thrown off stride by the continuing accusations of conflict of interests coming on the heels of Gennifer Flowers and the questions about his draft status during the Vietnam War -- accusations that Brown has described as "a scandal a week."

Clinton surged to the head of the pack before any of the primaries on the strength of a coherent and focused message that he delivered with force and conviction. He was the candidate who would turn the Democratic Party away from its pattern of pandering to every constituency group and concentrate on representing the great middle class. Given the condition of the economy and the perception of President Bush as a champion of the affluent, the Clinton message seemed to be just what the party needed to break with its dismal past.

These days, however, Clinton finds himself too often on the defensive, arguing over and over that he always comes under attack because he is an agent of political change and insisting time and time again that there is nothing in his background that disqualifies him from the White House. His ability to present himself as the protector of the middle class inevitably has been compromised.

The core question, of course, is electability. Brown argues that he cannot win because he has too much baggage. And Democratic leaders, who agree with Brown on nothing else, wonder if that analysis is correct. So for Clinton, there are no options. The way to prove you can win is by winning. It is also the way to accumulate those 2,145 delegates and make any further questions irrelevant.

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