PHILADELPHIA -- The Pennsylvania primary campaign is ending as it began, as essentially a sham battle that will tell little or nothing about Bill Clinton's strengths and weaknesses as the prospective Democratic presidential nominee.
The Arkansas governor has used the three-week campaign as a forum for changing his focus away from competing against his one remaining Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, and toward joining the general election battle with President Bush. But what Mr. Clinton has not done is demonstrate that his political troubles are behind him. And there is no reason to expect the results here to throw much light on that question, either.
While the most recent published polls show Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Brown, they differ widely on the size of his advantage. The first survey, by Millersville University, shows him ahead by 46 percent to 13 percent, with 15 percent for Paul E. Tsongas, whose name remains on the ballot though he has suspended his campaign. The second poll, conducted by Political/Media Research for two Pennsylvania TV stations, had Mr. Clinton at 35 percent and Mr. Brown at 27 percent, just 8 points behind, with Mr. Tsongas at 16 percent.
An even less encouraging finding for the Clinton campaign was that the prospective nominee now trails Mr. Bush among Pennsylvania voters, 44 percent to 37 percent, after leading 46-40 a month ago. The obvious inference is that Mr. Clinton
has not lighted any fires in the electorate with his limited personal campaigning here.
Mr. Brown's campaign has been too disjointed to offer any kind of valid test. The former California governor clearly has been tarnished by his weak showing in the last major test April 7 in New York, where he finished third behind both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas. And the decision of the AFL-CIO political leadership to endorse Mr. Clinton has robbed Mr. Brown of any chance of cutting away any substantial labor support in a state in which one in five voters is from a union household.
Indeed, Mr. Brown has appeared to be such a minor factor here that Mr. Clinton has felt free to refuse to debate him and to ignore him in both his advertising and speeches. There has been scarcely a mention of the Brown proposal for a 13 percent flat tax to replace the existing system.
Instead, Mr. Clinton has concentrated on speeches on major issues -- the economy and the environment, for example -- intended to define himself before Mr. Bush and his Republican managers do it for him.
But one measure of Mr. Clinton's continuing problem is the fact that in the final week of the campaign here he has been running a biographical TV commercial depicting his humble roots in Hope, Ark., in an obvious attempt to confront the so-called character issues that still weigh heavily on his candidacy.
The Democratic enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton also has been muted. Both Sen. Harris Wofford and Mayor Edward Rendell of Philadelphia have endorsed him and campaigned at his side. But Gov. Robert P. Casey has made a point of withholding his support, arguing that the final decision on the nominee should not be made before the convention as long as there are so many doubts in the air. And the Democratic City Committee here did not endorse Mr. Clinton until the final days of the campaign.
Mr. Clinton's gains with organized labor may be offset in part because of demographics less favorable to him than in New York. Blacks make up only 9 percent of the voting-age population and Jewish voters less than 3 percent. Although both groups may vote somewhat more heavily in a Democratic primary, they will not approach the 40 percent to 45 percent of the vote they cast in New York.
The stake in the primary is 169 delegates, and Mr. Clinton seems assured of winning most of them, perhaps enough to bring his total up over 1,500 of the 2,145 needed for the nomination.
He plans to fly to Washington the day after the returns come in to meet with members of Congress in an attempt to swing more of the unpledged "superdelegates" behind him. But it is already obvious thatthe Arkansas governor will not achieve his majority before the June 2 final round of primaries.
The political community will be studying two elements of the results here. The first obviously is whether Mr. Clinton can demonstrate some positive support by winning with a substantial margin, as Michael S. Dukakis did four years ago when he polled 66 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Jesse Jackson. The second is whether he can reverse the trend of low turnouts that is being seen as evidence of a lack of enthusiasm for the field of candidates.
But it may be impossible to get a clear reading here. Four years ago the vote totaled just over 1.5 million, and professionals here believe it may run that high again. But the inferences that can be drawn from such a turnout are limited by the fact that there are contested primaries for both Republican and Democratic Senate nominations and several hotly contested campaigns for both Congress and seats in the legislature.
In a sense, Mr. Clinton has been denied an opportunity to show strength because of the pro forma nature of his opposition. The ** campaign has received far less press attention than those in which Mr. Dukakis competed with Mr. Jackson in 1988, Walter F. Mondale defeated Gary Hart in 1984 and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Every indicator suggests Mr. Clinton will walk away a clear winner -- but carrying a prize of limited value in resolving doubts about his potential against Mr. Bush in November.