Manchester, N.H. -- GOV. BILL CLINTON'S desperate struggle to salvage his presidential candidacy is a long-odds gamble. The Arkansas Democrat is trying to turn the menacing controversy into a referendum on "dirty tricks" by the Republicans.
But Mr. Clinton is severely handicapped in making his case. He lacks the specifics to support his charges. And he is not a well enough established political figure for primary voters here to accept his protestations at face value. The result is likely to be a bitter and enduring struggle that could seriously compromise the Democratic Party's prospects of defeating a clearly vulnerable President Bush in November.
For Mr. Clinton, the first priority is stopping his slide before the primary Tuesday, a slide that already has dropped him behind Paul Tsongas in most polls and shown no sign of leveling off. But Mr. Clinton clearly is trying at the same time to provide a rationale for the continued support of the many leading Democrats elsewhere who have committed themselves to his campaign. The one certainty is that Mr. Clinton has the money and organizational framework to continue competing for the nomination whatever happens in New Hampshire.
There is nothing necessarily damaging in a continuing contest for the nomination. The danger to the Democrats is that the extended campaign might focus on essentially extraneous issues rather than the real concerns of voters worried about their economic prospects.
In a sense, that already has happened. When Mr. Clinton was accused of conducting a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers, the discussion centered on the willingness of the mainstream press to be led by a supermarket tabloid that paid Ms. Flowers for her story. When the questions about Mr. Clinton's draft history were raised by the Wall Street Journal, the Clinton campaign countered that the issue was being raised for partisan purposes by unnamed Republicans and kept alive by -- as a Clinton TV spot puts it -- "some who want to take us back to the negative politics of the '80s."
"On Tuesday," Mr. Clinton says into the camera, "New Hampshire can make history. Send a message to Washington, to Wall Street and the tabloids. Control your own destiny. This is your election. Your economy. Your country. Take it back."
Now the flames have been fanned by disclosure of a letter written by Mr. Clinton 22 years ago in which he thanked an ROTC officer for "saving me from the draft." Although the letter can be read as generally supporting his previous version of events, Mr. Clinton chose to raise the stakes by suggesting President Bush and the Republicans were behind the disclosure of the letter and comparing it to the "dirty tricks" of the Watergate era.
Releasing the letter before it would be used by ABC News, Mr. Clinton pointed out to reporters that it had surfaced just the day after a poll published by the Union Leader here showed him leading President Bush with New Hampshire voters. The suggestion was plain that the White House is now determined to scuttle his campaign.
But that scenario doesn't reflect political reality. Although Mr. Clinton may lead Mr. Bush in a poll matchup, his stock here has plunged to the point that he would hardly be considered the most formidable opposition in the fall. On the contrary, the charges directed at Mr. Clinton are just the kind the Bush strategists would love to use against a Democratic nominee for president in the general election. Indeed, there is more logic in the proposition that the Republicans would relish running against Mr. Clinton.
The real problem for the Arkansas Democrat is not what is contained in the letter, although there are some passages that open him to criticism. The real problem is that the latest episode may be seen by voters paying only marginal attention as "another shoe dropping" to raise questions about Mr. Clinton's electability. In that case, blaming the Republicans is not likely to be a convincing defense.
Mr. Clinton told reporters he could always go back and live happily in Little Rock, but that the electorate should be concerned about the return of the dirty tricks era. "This is not a big deal for me," he said. "It is a very big deal for the political process." The truth may be that it is a very big deal for the Democratic Party.