Tsongas overestimates his power to strike a deal ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 10, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Paul Tsongas, in keeping his presidential campaign in "suspension," won't say so, but he's sounding like a man who wouldn't mind being Bill Clinton's running mate. At the least, he wants Clinton to take his pro-business message, if note him.

Tsongas in announcing his decision to stay on the sidelines made several references to his determination to keep that message alive as essential to a Democratic victory in November. But he said he would not accept the role of spoiler. His job, he said, was to advance the message but at the same time heal the party.

"I intend to have my voice heard," Tsongas said at one point, and the most obvious way to do that effectively, short of reviving an active presidential candidacy, is to speak at Clinton's side as his running mate. Earlier he had said no soap, but asked specifically now about a Clinton-Tsongas ticket, he said: "I would defer on that question. . . . Let time pass and see if anything were to happen in the future. I don't expect it and I think we can just leave it at that."

Although he and Clinton have had bitter exchanges, notably Tsongas' characterization of the Arkansas governor as a "pander bear" who will say anything to anybody to get support, it would not require a major stretch for Clinton to use some of Tsongas' pro-business ideas.

If Clinton wanted to end the suspense in the delegate chase, settling on Tsongas as his running mate could well bring him the delegates he needs to put him on the threshold of the presidential nomination. The latest Associated Press count gives Clinton 1,267 delegates and Tsongas 539, with 2,145 required for a majority. But the question is whether Clinton would want to take this step, and why at this point he should have to.

With Tsongas ending speculation of a reborn candidacy, and Jerry Brown so thoroughly thrashed in the New York primary, the prospects are for Clinton to sail through the remaining primaries, with the only potential impediment another more serious allegation dropping on him.

Tsongas will remain on the ballot in all of them, and Brown says he will go all the way to the California primary on June 2. So voters will have only the same rejected vehicles for casting their protests against Clinton, and under the Democrats' proportional allocation of delegates, he will be swelling his total toward a majority every week, win or lose.

Some other late entrant is always possible, but that seems most improbable now. Filing deadlines are past in all remaining primary states except New Jersey, and a new candidate would in effect be thumbing his nose at all the voters who have already trooped to the polls.

Tsongas appears to be overstating his clout, and misinterpreting the substantial votes he garnered in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, when he says that these votes "preserved the message" of his own campaign. More likely, they were cast for "none of the above," meaning specifically against the front-running Clinton.

Tsongas argued that the low primary turnouts since his New Hampshire victory were a warning to the party to adopt his call for fiscal discipline and economic growth or be undercut by potential third-party candidate H. Ross Perot in the fall.

Tsongas suggested there was ample time between now and the Democratic convention for the party to incorporate his pro-business focus into its message. He noted that there already were about 600 Tsongas delegates going to the convention who "believe strongly in the message" and warned that "if the Democratic Party were to turn its back on that message" it would lose in November.

The problem for Tsongas is that Clinton is not yet in a position where he must make a deal, whether it is to consider him as his running mate or incorporate major features of the Tsongas message in his own. In dealing with labor, for example, Clinton soundly beat Tsongas' pro-business pitch in Illinois and Michigan, and holding onto that constituency is essential to his chances against President Bush.

Tsongas' vote totals for an inactive candidate have been, as he says, "remarkable." But they don't give him the leverage to pressure Clinton to take him or his message -- not yet, anyway.

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