NEW YORK -- Gov. Bill Clinton and his strategists may be Kidding themselves if they believe the road to success in the New York primary next Tuesday lies in cutting Jerry Brown down to size.
Mr. Brown is the quintessential moving target. If you catch him in an inconsistency, he shrugs and replies, in effect, that that was the old Jerry Brown doing the kind of politician thing that he now deplores. If you say his ideas are nutty, he responds that you just don't get it. Then he moves on.
But what makes Mr. Brown most difficult to handle is that his candidacy is not really based on his resume or his specific proposals. Instead, it rests almost entirely on his ability to project himself as the candidate who speaks for the anger and disgust with the political establishment. He is the champion of those who are, in the formulation of Howard Beal in the movie "Network," mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
But the Clinton campaign, apparently reflecting polls showing Mr. Brown close on its heels, has ordered a sharp increase in television and radio advertisements attacking Mr. Brown on his plan for a 13 percent flat tax to replace all current taxes on both business and individuals.
More to the point, Mr. Clinton is challenging Mr. Brown to a series of debates here -- only a week after the Arkansas governor had publicly considered refusing any further debates with Mr. Brown on the theory that he was too irresponsible to be allowed to share a platform. They will debate three times today -- on Fox television at 7 a.m., at Gracie Mansion with a group of mayors in midafternoon and again on WABC at 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, Mr. Brown's campaign continues to convey an impression of momentum while Mr. Clinton is still dealing with tangential issues, such as his use of marijuana, that have thrown him on the defensive. Yesterday, Mr. Brown won the endorsement of the Hospital Workers Union, whose 100,000 members are heavily black and Hispanic-American and were a key element in the Jesse Jackson coalition here in 1988.
Then Mr. Brown raced to a midday rally on Wall Street, where he described his campaign as "we the people taking back what belongs to us," and to a General Motors plant in Tarrytown scheduled for a sharp reduction in force.
Mr. Brown's concentration on labor union members and minorities represents a serious threat to Mr. Clinton, who is counting on both groups to provide key support next Tuesday but has not attracted as much leadership support in either as might be expected of a front-runner.
There have been no published polls matching the two rivals in the New York contest since the primary campaign began in earnest last week. But a survey by one television station, WABC, has found Mr. Clinton with negatives higher than those for Mr. Brown and markedly higher than those for Paul E. Tsongas, whose name remains on the ballot despite his having suspended his campaign. And private polls reportedly show Mr. Clinton leading but not by a margin that makes him comfortably assured of winning.
Mr. Brown's ability to dodge political bullets was never more apparent than in his handling of the disclosure that he had served as a director of a company, ICN Biomedicals Inc., whose parent company, ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., paid a $400,000 penalty to settle a civil action brought by the Food and Drug Administration. The company had been accused of falsely promoting a product, ribavarin, as an anti-AIDS drug. And Mr. Brown had been accused of intervening on its behalf with Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California.
Mr. Brown blithely conceded he had contacted Mr. Waxman, then cited it as another example of how the powerful and well-connected are able to do things ordinary people cannot do.
Dealing with the attacks on the flat tax, Mr. Brown is similarly unabashed. Confronted with studies showing it to be a boon for the wealthy and a burden for the poor, the former California governor simply replies, as he did again yesterday, that the tax would create "new wealth" and "allows ordinary people to get a bigger share of it."
But Mr. Clinton may discover the Brown campaign is not about the specifics of any tax plan so much as it is about touching voter nerves. That approach has carried Jerry Brown much further than anyone imagined three months ago -- and is now threatening the front-running Mr. Clinton.