PORTLAND, Maine -- Paul E. Tsongas suffered a mild but embarrassing rebuff in the Maine Democratic caucuses yesterday, running no better than even with Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. in the second test of the contest for the party's presidential nomination.
Mr. Brown's show of strength came as no great surprise. He had spent five full days campaigning here since finishing fifth with only 8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The former Cali-fornia governor used his condemnation of the political establishment and his opposition to nuclear power, which Mr. Tsongas favors, to draw hundreds of new participants to caucuses in and around Portland.
With 97 percent of the 3,566 delegates to the state convention chosen and the tally halted for the night, the front-running Mr. Tsongas had 29.5 percent of the vote and Mr. Brown had 29.3 percent. The "uncommitted" vote was 16 percent, and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas received 15 percent. Sens.Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, neither of whom made a serious effort here, had 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
The result was not expected to have any marked effect on the national campaign, although Brown partisans were touting it as a breakthrough. Jo Karr, the state party chairwoman, also suggested the Brown vote would mean that "now the national media have to give him an even break." But Mr. Brown's negatives in opinion polls of voters at large are so high that he is considered unlikely to replicate his performance here when dealing with a larger audience of Democrats.
But there was no question that Tsongas partisans were disappointed at the failure to win a clean victory. Since 1976, winners of the New Hampshire Democratic primary have won every Maine caucus day, usually by a comfortable margin. And because he is a former senator from nearby Massachusetts, Mr. Tsongas was presumed to have a regional advantage in Maine.
Mr. Brown, after taking part in a Democratic candidates' debate last night in Sioux Falls, S.D., called the Maine caucuses result "a major victory" that "proves on a level playing field" voters will respond to his message against the corrupting influence of money in politics. He said his campaign would be able to go on to the Democratic National Convention on the small contributions he has been soliciting via an 800 telephone number.
Mr. Tsongas congratulated Mr. Brown for his strong showing in Maine but said supporters of the other candidates joined forces in Portland in "an attempt to stop me." He quickly added that the strategy was perfectly legal under caucus rules and that he would have done the same under the same circumstances working against him.
The one consolation for Mr. Tsongas was the relatively weak performance of Mr. Clinton, his principal rival of the moment. The Arkansas governor was supported here by more Democratic officeholders than any other candidate and by an organization ,, that was considered the best in the brief campaign. Moreover, he had raised the stakes by flying into the state for an 11th-hourappearance late Saturday in an attempt to capitalize on these ostensible advantages.
Mr. Tsongas, who appeared briefly at a caucus at Portland High School before flying to South Dakota, also augmented his Maine organization with 50 young organizers in the final few days after New Hampshire. But some key supporters here described the organization as too little, too late in light of the intense effort by Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown's strength was heaviest in the Portland area, where he apparently tapped into widespread environmentalist opposition to nuclear power and Mr. Tsongas' support for it. Ms. Karr suggested that the issue is volatile enough to have confronted Mr. Tsongas with a serious obstacle to overcome.
"I think Tsongas did very well in spite of his nuclear position," she said.
That Mr. Brown was able to skew the turnout was obvious in several caucuses, including the largest caucus in Portland.
But it appeared the turnout was far lower in areas where Mr. Brown was less successful in adding to the universe of caucus participants.
Liberal activists in Maine have had similar, although less dramatic, impacts on some caucuses in the past.
One veteran Democratic leader here said privately: "This is a good argument for not having caucuses. They're too easy to pack."
But, packed or not, the story here was Mr. Brown's best moment -- and an elbow in the eye for Mr. Tsongas.