Clinton bandwagon not up to speed for getting Hill Democrats on board

April 09, 1992|By John Fairhall and Tom Bowman | John Fairhall and Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Despite his latest primary victories, Bill Clinton has yet to convince many Democrats on Capitol Hill that they should endorse him now.

He could virtually wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination with more support from the 772 "superdelegates," members of Congress and party officials who are free to back any candidate. But persistent doubts about the Arkansas governor's electability have kept a majority of them on the fence.

"I think people will wait until Pennsylvania," House Majority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan said yesterday, referring to the next big primary, on April 28. He also said "people will hold off" if Paul E. Tsongas renews his candidacy.

The former Massachusetts senator has scheduled an announcement this morning.

Mr. Clinton had been scheduled to meet with members of Congress today but had to cancel on doctor's orders because of his ailing throat, according to Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr., an Arkansas Democrat who is soliciting congressional support for his homestate governor. However, the throat condition didn't keep the candidate from visiting striking Caterpillar Inc. workers at a plant in Peoria, Ill., yesterday.

Mr. Clinton now has 1,267 delegates of the 2,145 needed to win, the Associated Press reports. That includes 200 superdelegates, of them members of Congress, according to John Hart, Mr. Clinton's director of delegate selection.

Clinton advisers play down the significance of what political analysts say is a low superdelegate total for a front-runner at this stage in the campaign. "They'll eventually be behind him," predicted Mr. Anthony.

Mr. Hart insisted the campaign hasn't devoted much effort to winning superdelegates because Mr. Clinton has been busy fighting primary battles. But that's beginning to change, Mr. Hart and other Clinton aides said.

Richard Moe, a Washington lawyer who is helping Mr. Clinton win congressional support, speculated that the governor would meet with the House Democratic Caucus in May.

"I expect there will be some movement" to support Mr. Clinton following Tuesday's victories in New York, Wisconsin and Kansas, Mr. Moe said. But he conceded that "a lot of people just want to see how this [the campaign] plays out." Others who are uncertain about Mr. Clinton "don't know" him because he hasn't served in Congress.

Rep. Pete Stark of California is uncommitted after having supported Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's now defunct candidacy. He said he wants to see the results of the California primary June 2, which ends the primary season -- and to see if anyone else gets in the race.

"I'd just as soon have the primaries take care of it," he said.

Although Mr. Harkin has endorsed Mr. Clinton, another former candidate, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey remains neutral.

"He's not ready to make an endorsement as of yet," a spokeswoman said.

It's unclear how many members of Congress have been asked for an endorsement. The press secretary to Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, a presidential candidate four years ago, said Mr. Clinton hasn't contacted him.

But Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, has received two appeals from Mr. Clinton, the first a phone call, the second a letter about two weeks ago. He resisted both.

"I'm keeping my powder dry with respect to this campaign because it is such a fluid thing. I think for me now caution is the best course," said Mr. Mfume, who backed the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in 1984 and 1988.

Mr. Mfume said there is "still a very strong possibility" of a brokered convention, particularly if Mr. Tsongas re-enters the race.

"Now the party people don't want that. With the whole world and country watching, you don't want to look like you're in the middle of a caucus. So I understand the reluctance of the leadership to even talkabout a brokered convention," he said.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, who has endorsed Mr. Clinton, may have been speaking for some of those leaders when he told reporters yesterday, "I think the New York primary was a solid win for GovernorClinton, and I think it indicates strong support throughout the country because he has won in other primaries as well."

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