Slick Willie, Huffing and Puffing

March 31, 1992

The scandal-a-week candidacy of Gov. Bill Clinton shows signs of foundering. He lost Connecticut last week to Jerry Brown, and homestate analysts in Vermont (which caucuses today), Wisconsin and New York (which have primaries next Tuesday) say there is at least a possibility that he could lose to the implausible Mr. Brown in each state.

The latest hit for Governor Clinton is his admitting in New York, after months of fencing with the press, that he once smoked marijuana. The revelation that his previous answers were more clever than they were responsive is what hurts, not the mere fact of having puffed a few times. It emphasizes his "Slick Willie" reputation.

Mr. Brown's coalition-building and momentum may be slowed as he is subjected to the same intensive and damaging press scrutiny that Mr. Clinton has endured.

Even if the Brown bandwagon picks up its pace, it is hard to see it taking him anywhere. Suppose Mr. Brown wins most or all of the remaining primaries and caucuses by comfortable margins -- say 60-40. At that point he would still trail Mr. Clinton in delegates won. That is not counting non-elected super-delegates who have full voting privileges at the national convention in July. These state and federal officials and party leaders, the "establishment" hate objects of the Brown campaign, are not likely to vote for him. But there might not be enough of them to nominate Mr. Clinton.

In a deadlock like that, the party's leaders might feel that a Clinton candidacy is not realistic. They might decide to open the convention to other candidates. Without Governor Clinton's approval and withdrawal of candidacy, that would be a disaster, especially if the ultimate nominee were not from the South, where Governor Clinton was and still is the overwhelming choice of primary voters. Those voters would defect to the Republicans in droves, and not just in the presidential race.

A more likely scenario at this point is that the Brown bandwagon will not pick up its pace. The contradictions in his campaign will become apparent. Governor Clinton will win at least as many delegates as Mr. Brown does in the remaining contests. In that case the super-delegates' votes would ensure him the nomination on the first ballot.

He would still be damaged goods, with many Democrats still telling pollsters they didn't trust him. But the party's leaders could only hope that Mr. Clinton, having survived an unprecedented February-July ordeal, had emerged from it able to handle anything the Republicans could come up with in the September-November campaign.

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