PHILADELPHIA -- Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania have been pivotal political events in one presidential campaign year after another. But the vote here tomorrow is likely to be totally anticlimactic after a campaign that has been principally shadow-boxing.
By all estimates Gov. Bill Clinton is expected to defeat former Gov. Jerry Brown by a margin substantial enough to give him the lion's share of the 169 delegates at stake. He may even win enough to move his total above 1,500 of the 2,145 needed for the nomination, which should impress anyone with the inevitability of his triumph.
But, perhaps because the contest has been so low-key, Clinton has been able to do little to dissolve the doubts about whether he is a potentially serious threat to President Bush in the general election.
The Arkansas governor has exploited the situation probably as well as could be expected. Rather than continuing to beat up on Brown, he has chosen to ignore him, refusing even a single debate and using his speeches and television commercials to juxtapose himself against the president. Clinton's tough speech on the environment, an issue on which he is clearly vulnerable, was an important political gesture because it reassured doubting Democrats that he intends to be aggressive in confronting Bush even in the least auspicious circumstances.
There is little evidence, however, that Clinton has made anything approaching a strong positive impression on the 1.5 million Democrats who may vote here tomorrow. Some polls show him leading Brown by better than 2 to 1, although one just done for two Pennsylvania television stations has Clinton ahead by only 35 percent to 27 percent. In any event, all polls still show lingering doubters who call themselves undecided or plan to vote for Paul Tsongas, whose name remains on the ballot. More to the point, one published poll found Clinton had lost ground to Bush in Pennsylvania even after winning in New York and campaigning here.
To some degree, Clinton has suffered from the perfunctory nature of the campaign and the relatively restrained press coverage it has received. This has not been a classic battle such as the one in 1976, in which Jimmy Carter defeated Henry M. Jackson and Morris Udall to become the de facto nominee. Nor has it engendered the interest of eight years ago, when Walter Mondale defeated Gary Hart, or four years ago, when Michael Dukakis polled 66 percent of the vote against Jesse Jackson's 27 percent.
Clinton's performance here will be measured by the size of his margin and the turnout tomorrow. But astute Democratic professionals will be seeking evidence that he can evoke enough enthusiasm among blue-collar Democrats to make the state a realistic target against President Bush in November.
Despite a Democratic registration edge, Pennsylvania has been a tough state for the party in presidential elections. But it also is one closely contested enough to be a significant target Nov. 3. Jimmy Carter carried it in 1976. And four years ago Dukakis lost Pennsylvania to Bush by only 105,000 votes, 50.7 percent to 48.4 percent of the vote. One factor was a sharp decline in black turnout in the general election.
But Clinton has advantages Dukakis did not enjoy. For one thing, he has shown more support among blacks than Dukakis, although nothing comparable to what Carter enjoyed in 1976 or Mondale in 1984. For another, the economic situation is distressed enough, particularly in the western part of the state, to give any Democrat an opening against the Republican incumbent. That was never more clear than in the success Harris Wofford enjoyed in defeating former Gov. and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in the special Senate election last Nov. 5 -- and becoming the first Democrat to win a Senate seat since 1962.
Pennsylvania is one of those industrial rust belt states -- along with Ohio, Michigan and Illinois -- in which the Democratic nominee must at least break even with Bush to have a chance of defeating him.
Unhappily for the Democrats, however, there has been nothing in this lackluster campaign to tell them whether Bill Clinton can be a serious player here.