NEW YORK -- Voters in New York and three other states go to the polls today as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton attempts to restore a shaken sense of inevitability about his claim to the Democratic nomination against tenacious former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Primaries in Wisconsin and Kansas and a non-binding "beauty contest" in Minnesota will take a back seat to the New York primary, in which 244 national convention delegates are at stake as well as Mr. Clinton's stature as the clear front-runner for his party's nomination.
Mr. Clinton is favored to accomplish that objective, but an upset by Mr. Brown here would cast severe doubts on Mr. Clinton's electability in November without elevating Mr. Brown to front-runner status. It would also raise the possibility of one or more additional challengers in the Democratic race.
A victorious Mr. Brown in New York and any or all of the other three states -- Wisconsin, Kansas and Minnesota -- would still be far behind Mr. Clinton in pledged delegates and would remain burdened by widespread questions about his own electability.
But a Clinton defeat in New York could trigger the re-entry into the race of former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, who (( "suspended" his campaign 19 days ago, pleading lack of funds to wage a costly television campaign in New York. Mr. Tsongas has said he will disclose his plans tomorrow morning, after the New York results are in.
A poll yesterday by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion said New York's 3.7 million Democrats are so unhappy about Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown that a large majority of voters will not bother voting.
The Marist polling sample of 201 likely voters found that Mr. Clinton had the lead going into the primary voting but that the "situation was very fluid" with a high number of undecided voters and a high number of very unenthusiastic voters.
After two weeks of often bitter exchanges in New York between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown, the two candidates' final confrontation yesterday surprisingly produced the most positive debate of the campaign in a special edition of the Phil Donahue television talk show.
With Mr. Donahue uncharacteristically sitting aside and saying nothing, the candidates discussed between themselves for an hour the changes they offered in contrast to President Bush and how they would use government and the presidency to bring about those changes.
Mr. Clinton -- painted by Mr. Brown as the establishment candidate -- deftly used the benign debate to identify himself along with Mr. Brown as a candidate of change. "In this primary," he said, "we've each argued that we had better plans for change. That is now for the voters to decide . . . [but] we have to be committed to going beyond where we have been to really changing this country, to turning it around."
Although each was supposed to ask the other questions, Mr. Clinton played the Donahue role by repeatedly asking Mr. Brown to explain his positions, but always in a deferential and accommodating tone.
Mr. Brown responded in measured terms, largely putting aside the combative manner that has energized his supporters while often turning off others.
"The fundamental linchpin of difference" between himself and Mr. Clinton, he said, "is the extent of challenge that you think is necessary to be bringing leadership in both parties. What I'm saying is we need a thorough, root-and-branch digging up here" and "offer a real choice to the policies of George Bush."
Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Brown's statement as "very helpful" and noted that "both of us throughout our careers have been agents of change."
Mr. Clinton emphasized that he, like Mr. Brown, wants to reform the campaign process, but by limiting the influence of "special interests" through political action committees.
Mr. Brown concentrated on the reliance of the Bush administration on the marketplace to determine the fate of the American economy, arguing that in the global marketplace the government must protect American jobs and wages and inject "social and economic justice" in a now-unregulated market.
After the last two weeks of rancor and personal attacks, in New York that provided fodder for the local tabloid newspapers, yesterday's debate was billed by the Donahue publicists as a no-referee, one-on-one verbal combat between the two Democrats.
Instead, they put aside the brass knuckles and conducted what amounted to a polite seminar on the shortcomings of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush years that each would correct.
Mr. Clinton asked Mr. Brown to say what in his view the two Republicans "believed about the world that was wrong" and "why they presided over the destruction of the middle class and the explosion of poverty."