Clinton's momentum strengthens Taking campaign to Congress after big victory in Pa.

April 29, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton brings his presidential campaign to Democratic members of Congress today after a resounding victory of more than 2-1 over Jerry Brown in a Pennsylvania primary that offered him some hope that the "character" issue plaguing him may be dissipating.

Mr. Clinton, in meetings here with many Democratic House and Senate members who will attend the Democratic National Convention as automatic, unpledged "superdelegates," can point to exit polls in which 64 percent of Pennsylvania voters surveyed said they believed he had the honesty and integrity to serve effectively as president.

After the bitter Democratic primary in New York three weeks ago, in which questions of Mr. Clinton's character were daily fodder for the local tabloid newspapers and television shows, only 49 percent of New York voters surveyed said he had the honesty and integrity to do the job.

But in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Brown, after finishing a poor third in New York posed little threat to Mr. Clinton, the Arkansas governor was able to focus on his differences with President Bush. That tactic appeared to work, not only in enabling him to trounce Mr. Brown but in helping to repair his image as a credible challenger to the incumbent Republican president.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Clinton had 57 percent of the Pennsylvania vote to 26 for Mr. Brown and 12 for former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, who has suspended his campaign but whose name remained on the ballot. The Tsongas phenomenon, in which he ran ahead of Mr. Brown in New York without campaigning, appeared to be on the wane.

While Mr. Clinton had cause to celebrate in the size of his Pennsylvania victory and the indication that voter disapproval of him was dropping, there were two other factors in the results that gave him reason for concern.

First, the exit polls found 53 percent of Democratic voters surveyed still wanted someone else to run. And second, about one-fourth of Democratic voters indicated they would vote for Texas businessman H. Ross Perot if he runs as an independent in the fall.

Still, Mr. Clinton's Pennsylvania victory moved him to within 700 delegates of the 2,145 he needs to clinch the Democratic nomination, and he appears poised to collect the bulk of the 772 superdelegates -- high party officials and elected officeholders -- in the days and weeks ahead. About 300 of them have already indicated their support in advance of today's pilgrimage to the Democrats in Congress.

In the Republican primary, President Bush was an overwhelming winner over challenger Patrick J. Buchanan. The Bush campaign claimed the obvious -- that the GOP presidential nomination was in the bag.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Bush had 77 percent to 23 percent for Mr. Buchanan. But more than 40 percent of Republicans surveyed as they left the polls said they wished there was someone else to vote for. And, like the Pennsylvania Democrats, about one-fourth of the Republicans said they would vote for Perot in November -- a warning signal to Mr. Bush as well as to Mr. Clinton.

With the presidential contests in the two parties so lackluster and one-sided, the real excitement in yesterday's voting was the victory in the Democratic Senate primary of Lynn Yeakel, a longtime social activist but newcomer as a candidate, over Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel.

Ms. Yeakel will face Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, an easy victor over State Rep. Stephen Freind in the GOP primary, in November. Ms. Yeakel made Mr. Specter's prosecutorial treatment of Anita Hill in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas the battering ram of her campaign -- a tactic she is certain to continue directly against Mr. Specter.

Mr. Clinton, basking cautiously in the glow of his victory last night after the New York tempest, said: "It's going in the right direction. We gave them the campaign back and they responded." Concerning the Democrats in Congress he would be courting today, Mr. Clinton said he was "going to challenge them to be a part of" his campaign for change.

Those "who want to be agents of change," he said, understand the voters' frustration with the "gridlock" between the Republican White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress and understand that it will take a Democratic president to break it.

Mr. Brown vowed to continue his own campaign, which has increasingly taken on the trappings of a long-term movement for reform of the whole political system. The former California governor is aiming toward his home state, where polls indicate he is running competitively against Mr. Clinton as its June 2 primary approaches.

"I don't care what the numbers show," Mr. Brown said. "I'm building a movement, an insurgent cause to restore what Jefferson and Madison and Washington created."

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton is scheduled to go to North Carolina tonight for a speech on education and other events tomorrow, in advance of that state's primary next Tuesday. Voters in Indiana and the District of Columbia are also to vote on that day, with Mr. Clinton on the Democratic side and President Bush on the Republican expected to have little trouble continuing their winning ways.

Once again for Mr. Clinton, all eyes will be on those exit polls and what voters say about whether they believe he has the honesty and integrity to be a good president.

And once again his strategy will be to ignore Mr. Brown, continue to spell out his own agenda and attempt to join the debate at a distance with Mr. Bush.

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