Integrity issue remains thorn for Democratic Party leaders

April 08, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, with primary victories yesterday in New York and at least two other states, has taken a giant step toward the Democratic presidential nomination in terms of the sheer arithmetic. But the nagging questions about his character and integrity suggest he still has a distance to go in persuading fence-sitting Democratic leaders and voters that he can beat President Bush in November.

By winning in New York, Kansas and Minnesota and leading in Wisconsin, the Arkansas governor now has well more than half the 2,145 national convention delegates needed to clinch the nomination -- an achievement that under ordinary circumstances this stage could be expected to bring party leaders climbing aboard his departing train. Going into the voting yesterday, Mr. Clinton claimed more than 1,100 delegates, and he won the bulk of the 362 delegates at stake in the day's primaries.

Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown, who has been pushing his party to select its nominee quickly and get on with the business of preparing to run against Mr. Bush, said last night that Mr. Clinton was "coming pretty close to striking distance" of the nomination. The pool of 772 unpledged "superdelegates" -- party and elected officeholders getting a free pass to the convention -- could assure it for Mr. Clinton by endorsing him, but the concerns raised about him continue to give many of them pause.

With the next major primary, Pennsylvania, three weeks off, the critical question is whether such Democratic leaders decide that the competition has gone on long enough and agree to accept Mr. Clinton or they hold out, either out of hope that a better alternative than the remaining active candidate, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, surfaces, or out of fear that more damaging allegations might be raised against Mr. Clinton.

One possible alternative, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who fared extremely well in yesterday's voting despite having "suspended" his campaign three weeks ago, said last night that he would decide by tomorrow or Friday whether he will re-enter the race actively, as he had hinted Sunday he might do. But he emphasized he would not get back in merely as "a spoiler" to try to stop Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Tsongas said on a Sunday television talk show that his decision would depend on how he and Mr. Clinton fared in New York and the other states, and Mr. Clinton's performance was hardly an unvarnished invitation for him to get back in. If lack of money to compete in television advertising in the expensive New York market was what forced him to the sidelines originally, as he said it did, he would face much the same problem in Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, former Governor Brown made clear last night that he will press on with his "insurgent" campaign to be "the voice of the voicelessness," moving to Virginia, which holds caucuses this weekend, for a rally this afternoon in Richmond. But yesterday's voting reconfirmed what was already evident -- that Mr. Brown himself generates widespread doubts about himself among voters. As a stop-Clinton vehicle, a role he acquired briefly in beating the Arkansan in Connecticut two weeks ago, Mr. Brown fizzled yesterday.

A problem for Democratic leaders who continue to have reservations about Mr. Clinton, or who flat-out don't want him, is that Mr. Tsongas has been beaten by him in the South and in three major Northern industrial states -- Illinois and Michigan in addition to New York -- and a readily available new alternative does not seem to be in sight.

Furthermore, filing deadlines for entering the remaining primaries have now closed in every state except New Jersey, and any newcomer would face criticism of running only as a spoiler, or as one unwilling to run the very difficult obstacle course Mr. Clinton has tread this year. Leading Democratic figures who a year ago elected not to run when it appeared that President Bush was unbeatable would be particularly vulnerable to charges of opportunism.

Even before yesterday's voting, Mr. Clinton said he would go on to Pennsylvania and the remaining primary states because the voters in those states deserved to be involved in the process. Under the circumstances, he has little alternative --and seemingly little to fear from voters who have heard the worst about him and still supported him.

There remains, to be sure, the possibility of new allegations against him. But Mr. Clinton's extraordinary resilience under fire, and the judgment of the voters, may be taking the decision on the nomination out of the hands of party leaders who created the superdelegates for just such a situation as this -- to "save" the party from a "wrong" choice by the voters, as their selection of Jimmy Carter in 1976 is retrospectively viewed by many Democratic leaders.

The question now may not be so much whether Mr. Clinton can win the nomination but whether in winning it he can combat the questions about him sufficiently to offer his party a real chance to beat Mr. Bush.

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