WASHINGTON -- Congressional support for Bill Clinton i growing in the wake of Paul E. Tsongas' announcement yesterday that he would not re-enter the Democratic presidential race.
Mr. Tsongas did not endorse Mr. Clinton, but he acknowledged that the Arkansas governor is the presumptive nominee.
Although Jerry Brown remains in the race, his defeats in last Tuesday's primaries have quieted some of the concern about Mr. Clinton's viability.
A group of 16 or 17 House Democrats who met Wednesday to discuss the Democratic candidates are now likely to back Mr. Clinton, said Rep. Don Edwards of California. All in the group are uncommitted "superdelegates," free to support any candidate.
"I think a lot of us will endorse him," Mr. Edwards said yesterday. "Everybody agrees he's getting a lot stronger."
Arkansas Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr., who is courting superdelegates for Mr. Clinton, was hoping to meet last night with congressional supporters of Mr. Clinton to encourage them to lobby their colleagues andtheir constituents on his behalf. He said Mr. Clinton's House supporters increased by at least two yesterday: A pair of lawmakers, whom he wouldn't identify, told him they were "ready to work with you.'"
Other lawmakers who remain uncommitted said they want to discuss Mr. Clinton's position on various issues when he visits Capitol Hill, probably in early May, after the Easter recess and the Pennsylvania primary April 28. Barring a downturn in Mr. Clinton's fortunes, it appears increasingly likely he'll get the superdelegate support he needs to secure the nomination before the convention in July.
Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen -- who is often mentioned as an alternative to Mr. Clinton -- may make an announcement in a week or two, according to an aide. If he does, it is expected to be an endorsement of Mr. Clinton.
In all, there are 772 superdelegates, including party officials, governors and more than 200 members of Congress. Mr. Clinton already has 200 superdelegates, which, added to the number he has won in the primaries, gives him 1,267. He needs 2,145 to be nominated.
It was these numbers that led Mr. Tsongas to forgo a second try, despite finishing second Tuesday in New York and drawing votes in three other states without having campaigned. "We did very well, but so did Bill Clinton," he said in Boston.
"That winning removed the argument that my re-entry would rescue this party," said Mr. Tsongas, who had suspended his campaign in late March for want of money but reconsidered last weekend when it appeared Mr. Clinton might lose in New York and Wisconsin. "Indeed, his winning took me back to the option that I rejected three weeks ago -- the role of spoiler. I reject that role."
NTC Mr. Tsongas conceded that at least part of the vote he received Tuesday was a "protest" vote rather than a vote for him to be
president. Even so, he didn't seem completely ready to let go of his hope of becoming the nominee should a disaster disable the Clinton campaign.
He refused to endorse Mr. Clinton while Mr. Brown was still in the race and said he would continue fund-raising, albeit to retire his own campaign debts. And, while he told his volunteers to stop working, he wouldn't tell the public not to vote for him in upcoming primaries. "If people wish to express support for my message and to seek to become delegates, that is their choice, but I will not re-enter the race."
Asked if he'd consider being Mr. Clinton's running mate, Mr. Tsongas said, "I would defer on that question."
He said Mr. Clinton telephoned him Wednesday night. "He congratulated me, I congratulated him, we compared sore throats at great length and said that we would meet at some occasion down the road."
Mr. Tsongas had a warning for the Democratic Party in light of the low primary turnouts to date. "The Democratic Party cannot be a very happy camp today. But the fact is you can reverse that with a message that grabs people and gives them hope for the future."
But party leaders like Ronald H. Brown, the Democratic National Committee chairman, were happy that Mr. Tsongas had dropped out. Meeting with reporters, the party chairman expressed hope that the former California governor would recognize Mr. Clinton's huge delegate lead and, if not quit, temper his attacks.
In fact, the former California governor has moderated his comments about Mr. Clinton. In a campaign speech yesterday at City Hall in Alexandria, Va., he hardly mentioned his opponent's name while criticizing President Bush several times.
But he said he's not ending his campaign and not conceding defeat in oVirginia's Democratic caucuses this weekend.
Mr. Brown asserted that Mr. Tsongas' decision would have no effect on him. "I think it sharpens the debate. And there'll be an attempt, I think, to quiet it down," he said.