Clinton's stumbles make him vulnerable to Brown New York primary outcome uncertain

April 02, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- At the height of the 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis gave a foreign policy speech in Chicago at noon one day. Then he flew to Sterling Heights, Mich., and had his picture taken driving a tank.

It was one of the more memorable moments of the campaign -- and a classic case of a candidate "stepping on his own story," in the lexicon of the political consultants. Mr. Dukakis' views on how to deal with the Soviet Union were lost in laughter at the tank pictures.

Bill Clinton, the front-running candidate for the 1992 nomination, did something very similar yesterday. He delivered a speech on foreign policy, but appeared a few hours earlier on the Phil Donahue show, rehashing such high moments of his campaign as the Gennifer Flowers controversy and whether he had: (1) pandered to voters in Connecticut; (2) run unfair television commercials against Paul E. Tsongas and (3) dissembled on his history of smoking marijuana.

This unusual piece of scheduling probably didn't do Mr. Clinton any damage comparable to what Mr. Dukakis suffered. But it was bizarre enough as a political stratagem to add to the question politicians here are asking with increasing seriousness: Are the wheels coming off the Clinton campaign?

Two weeks ago the possibility of Mr. Clinton losing the critical primary here to former Gov. Jerry Brown of California was being dismissed out of hand; today, with the campaign in the last five days, political professionals believe it is quite possible despite demographics that seem to strongly favor Mr. Clinton.

As it turned out, the appearance on the Phil Donahue program didn't produce any bombshells.

Mr. Clinton stuck to his insistence that Ms. Flowers' claim of an 11-year love affair was false. And when Mr. Donahue sought to pursue the question, Mr. Clinton cut him off. "I'm not going to discuss the details of this any further," he said, adding a moment later: "We're going to sit here in silence for a long time, Phil."

Mr. Clinton on several occasions won applause from the studio audience when he said the media should drop the issue because he has answered the questions.

"I don't believe I or any other decent human being should have to put up with these kinds of questions," Mr. Clinton said.

(The program will air in Baltimore today at 9 a.m. on Channel 2.)

In essence, Mr. Clinton was following the same tack he has been using the last few days in accusing the tabloids of "trashing" him with unfounded accusations. What he could not explain is why he was now appearing on what amounts to tabloid television.

Mr. Clinton's uncertain performance as a candidate has raised red flags among political veterans here. As Paul Buiar, a longtime consultant, put it: "Every bleeping morning some other big thing comes up, and he doesn't know how to face it."

Joe Crangle, a Democratic national committeeman from Buffalo, sees it as a problem of unfamiliarity. "People want to feel comfortable with a person when they're voting for president," he said. "But they just don't have that comfort zone with Clinton."

On the face of it, the New York electorate should be hospitable to Mr. Clinton. He has been winning a plurality of the Jewish vote elsewhere, and Jews will cast one-fourth to one-third of the vote here. Mr. Brown also has alienated some Jewish voters with his repeated assertions that he would offer the vice presidential nomination to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, remembered in the Jewish community here for calling New York "Hymietown" in 1984.

Mr. Clinton has also been winning huge margins among blacks, who could cast as much as 15 percent of the primary vote if they turned out in large numbers. But here he may be suffering from a lack of enthusiasm -- to some degree because neither of the two black leaders who could be most influential with black voters, Mayor David N. Dinkins and New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, has endorsed him.

Party leaders who have chosen sides are overwhelmingly for Mr. Clinton over Mr. Brown. But veteran Democrats believe the lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton may mean that regular Democrats may not bother to vote. As Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch put it: "We could have the disaffected vote overtake the regular vote. It's the reverse of the usual situation."

Mr. Lynch doesn't rule out the possibility of Mr. Brown scoring an upset. "A low voter turnout hurts Bill Clinton, and I think it's going to be a low-turnout election."

David Garth, the city's premier political consultant, sees a similar possibility. "My sense is that it's going to be very close, and I think Brown could probably take it," he said.

The key, Mr. Garth said, may be the size of the protest vote still cast for Mr. Tsongas despite the fact that he has suspended his campaign. If those voters move to Mr. Brown instead, he said, they could be decisive.

Mr. Clinton, Mr. Garth suggested, may have "finessed too many things" in trying to cope with controversy in a way that would placate the primary electorate. "You can never please New Yorkers," Mr. Garth said, "and the smart ones don't try."

None of the pros see Mr. Brown as more than a vehicle for protest. "It's not necessarily Brown beating him," Mr. Buiar said. "It's people looking for something else."

Objective measures still show Mr. Clinton ahead. A new Marist Institute poll has him with 37 percent to 26 percent for Mr. Brown and 25 percent undecided. But no one imagines this one is over.

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