NEW YORK -- With nine days left until the April 7 primary here, the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has suddenly become a referendum on beleaguered front-runner Bill Clinton.
The Arkansas governor campaigned frenetically across the city yesterday even as another controversy seemed to reinforce his image as "Slick Willie" -- this time as he conceded that he had been dissembling for months on the question of whether he had ever used marijuana.
Meanwhile, new opinion polls showed widespread doubt about Mr. Clinton's integrity and more evidence that voters here, as elsewhere, would like to see candidates other than Mr. Clinton and his only surviving rival, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.
But the focus sharpened on Mr. Clinton and whether, in the wake of his upset loss to Mr. Brown in Connecticut last week, he can show clear appeal in a state that is essential to any hopes the Democrats have of defeating President Bush in November. And Mr. Clinton was conspicuously on the defensive.
Mr. Clinton began the day yesterday at a black church in Queens, apologizing for what he called "a foolish mistake" in playing golf recently at an all-white country club in Little Rock. But, although Mr. Brown was trying to keep it alive, that controversy was soon overtaken by the marijuana issue -- or, more precisely, whether Mr. Clinton has been misleading the press and electorate on the question.
Appearing on a television in- terview program, Mr. Clinton was asked about the answer to inquiries about marijuana use that he has employed as far back as July and as recently as in an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News last week. "I have never broken the laws of my country," he has said on each occasion.
But this time a reporter asked about when he was a Rhodes scholar in England 20 years ago. What about international law, rather than simply "the laws of my country"?
"When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it," an obviously discomfited Mr. Clinton replied. "I didn't inhale, and I never tried it again."
Mr. Brown, who has denied ever using drugs, defended his rival and chided the press for going back 20 years to revive such an issue. But television and radio news programs zeroed in on the operative political question -- whether the front-running Democrat had been using a legalistic formulation to leave the impression that he had never used drugs.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that voters don't deliver harsh judgments on politicians with histories of youthful experiments with marijuana. Two candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1988, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee and former Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt of Arizona, made such admissions four years ago without suffering any political damage.
But the context of this campaign made the issue pertinent. A new survey made for WABC-TV found 39 percent of Democrats with "doubts" about Mr. Clinton's integrity. And Mr. Clinton's overall negatives with the electorate here stood at 46 percent, compared with 31 percent for Mr. Brown and 25 percent for former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, who has suspended his campaign.
The poll also found that two-thirds of Democrats and independents would like to see other candidates in the field. And that question was given added relevance by two developments here. Mr. Tsongas evoked an outpouring of enthusiasm from crowds, many of them Greek-Americans, who lined the Fifth Avenue route of the Greek Day parade, for which he served as marshal, reviving speculation that he might re-enter the campaign if Mr. Clinton were to crash here April 7.
At the same time, in Albany an apparent deal on the state budget gave new life to the notion that Gov. Mario M. Cuomo might become an 11th-hour candidate. He had declared earlier that he would have sought the Democratic nomination if he had not been tied down by budget negotiations. Mr. Cuomo continued to insist that he would not run, but Democrats here were trying to write scenarios that would bring him into the picture.
Mr. Clinton's immediate problem, of course, is to fight off the challengefrom Mr. Brown in the primaries here and in Wisconsin and Kansas on April 7. Private polls made here for the Clinton campaign showed the Arkansas governor with a narrow and by no means secure lead -- a finding that moved the campaign to run television commercials attacking Mr. Brown's advocacy of a 13 percent flat tax to replace the present system of taxing both individuals and businesses.
But it is plain that the critical question is whether Mr. Clinton has accumulated so much political baggage that he cannot prevail against Mr. Bush. And that judgment will be made almost entirely on his ability to win in a Democratic bastion against a rival, Mr. Brown, whom the political community sees as a vehicle for protest but not a serious contender for the nomination.
If Mr. Clinton were to lose here or perhaps even if he won very narrowly, there almost certainly would be party attempts to find an alternative.
Mr. Clinton and his strategists recognize the peril and are planning a full-court press in New York without too much concern over whether he loses to Mr. Brown in the Vermont caucuses tomorrow or, for that matter, the Wisconsin and Kansas tests the same day as New York.