'Maryland Is Crucial'


So said Paul E. Tsongas on an upbeat visit to Baltimore the day after his victory in the New Hampshire primary -- and, as is often the case with this candidate, he said what he means.

To the relief of his backers, the former Massachusetts senator did not say Maryland could be "fatal" -- though it might well be. If Mr. Tsongas loses this state, even by a small margin, in the March 3 primary, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton would sail into his native South with a head of steam for the March 10 Super Tuesday primaries.

Mr. Tsongas is betting a lot on Maryland, the first primary state in the nation that does not have a regional tie to any of the candidates. Recognizing a win here could establish his credentials as a national contender, he is putting the kind of emphasis on Maryland that Mr. Clinton is putting on Georgia, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin is putting on Minnesota and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey is putting on Colorado. Tsongas TV ads started last weekend. He is rustling up the kind of Greek-American money that has aided Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in the past. And he is likely to make several more appearances in the Baltimore and Washington areas despite a hectic schedule elsewhere.

At this stage, the Clinton and Harkin campaigns seem less certain. Two days ago, the Arkansas governor was ready to bypass Maryland as a means of reducing its importance. But Mr. Clinton is now scheduled to be in Baltimore tomorrow, and once he has stuck his foot in the door he is really stuck. The same could be said for Mr. Harkin.

For all candidates, and the list includes former California Gov. Jerry Brown, winner of the 1976 Maryland primary, the "threshold number" is 15 percent. That's what a candidate has to get to win any seats in the Maryland delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

As of yesterday, Messrs. Tsongas, Clinton and Harkin (in that order) seemed more assured of making the threshold than their rivals. Mr. Tsongas, especially, has the momentum. He appears to be attracting ethnic, Yuppie and upscale voters with his combination of economic conservatism, social liberalism, blunt talk about tough times and anti-charisma. The apparent Tsongas constituency could prove decisive in this state, which is probably more a microcosm of the nation and the Democratic Party than any of the other "early" states on the political calendar.

So Maryland will not only be "crucial" in the Democratic race. It will be watched more closely than ever before, thus providing some justification for the controversial decision to advance the primary date despite the time-crunch this is imposing on state and local contests.

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