Race may be too far gone for late primary entry

March 31, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON N... — WASHINGTON -- Although Bill Clinton is struggling in New York and many Democrats say they would like to see other candidates in the race, the time to mount a primary challenge has effectively expired.

Someone other than Mr. Clinton could still win the presidential nomination if the Arkansas governor loses next week's New York primary and fails in future contests, since party rules permit delegates committed to a candidate to switch to someone else.

But it's too late for a new candidate to win very many delegates in upcoming primaries and caucuses. By April 12, the filing deadline will have passed in the remaining five states where it is currently possible to get on the presidential ballot: Arkansas, Alaska, Alabama, New Jersey and Virginia.

Dissatisfaction with Mr. Clinton was evident in his loss in Connecticut to Mr. Brown March 24. It could increase sharply if he doesn't defeat Mr. Brown in New York, where a recent poll showed that two-thirds of Democrats wish another candidate were in the race.

But by the time the results of the April 7 New York primary are in, a new candidate would have just a few days to get onto the ballot anywhere.

In New Jersey the deadline is April 9; in Virginia, it's April 11. Deadlines for the remaining states expire before the New York primary.

"I think, particularly in the primary process, it's basically too late if you haven't gotten in," says Tad Devine, an expert on the delegate selection process who managed Bob Kerrey's presidential campaign this year.

But party members who want an alternative to Mr. Clinton and to Mr. Brown still can hope.

One reason is that Mr. Clinton, who by his campaign's count has 1,088 delegates now, has virtually no chance of securing the 2,145 delegates needed to win by the time the primary season ends June 2. He will require the backing of many of the 772 so-called "super-delegates," party officials and elected officeholders, who are free to support anyone.

Another reason is that party rules clearly provide that delegates aren't required to vote for the candidate for whom they were elected or chosen. "Their conscience is their dictate," says Alice Travis, another delegate selection expert, who worked for Paul E. Tsongas' campaign.

That doesn't mean that delegates automatically would flock to someone else. As Mr. Devine points out, "people have a tendency to vote for a candidate for whom they were selected." But if Mr. Clinton's star had fallen so far that few believed he could beat Mr. Bush, his delegates could back another candidate.

Party leaders have hoped that with Mr. Tsongas out of the race Democrats would rally around Mr. Clinton. But the apparent closeness of the race in New York is keeping alive talk of an alternative candidate -- and of Mr. Tsongas reviving his XTC campaign.

One party activist, who asked not to be named, said the uncertainty over Mr. Clinton is illustrated by the small number of super-delegates who have so far committed themselves to him. Of Mr. Clinton's 1,088 delegates, 183 are super-delegates.

But Mr. Clinton's aides say they're not concerned. John Hart, his director of delegate selection, says Mr. Clinton hasn't been able to spend time soliciting super-delegate support.

"It's been difficult to get the governor to sit down and make the phone calls," Mr. Hart said. "So up to now we have not put the push on."

Mr. Hart also says Mr. Clinton is hampered by the fact that as a governor, running an "outsider" campaign, he must make his case to the more than 250 Democratic members of Congress who are among the super-delegates. "It's a touchy situation."

Mr. Hart points to success with the 30 governors who are super delegates: 15 support Mr. Clinton. And he also has the support of 68 members of the House of Representatives and 11 senators, Mr. Hart says.

"I think we've done very well, given the effort we've had and the line we've had to walk," Mr. Hart said.

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