Clinton tries to thwart foe's bid Two-part attack is launched against Brown.


NEW YORK -- Forced to confront an unexpectedly stiff challenge from former California Gov. Jerry Brown Jr., Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is trying to keep his foe at bay in the critical New York primary campaign by slamming his flat tax proposal and sparring with him in a series of debates.

The two-pronged effort is partially aimed at diverting attention from Mr. Clinton's own Achilles' heel in the battle for the Democratic presidential campaign: the character issue.

A statewide poll released yesterday suggests that the strategy is paying off. The survey, conducted by the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion Sunday and Monday, put Mr. Clinton ahead of Mr. Brown, 36.7 percent to 26 percent, among likely voters in the Democratic primary. The poll's margin of error is plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

Although the results were good news for the beleaguered Clinton campaign, the lead represents a decrease of about 6 percentage points from his advantage over Mr. Brown in a poll taken March 24.

And most political analysts agree that the outcome of Tuesday's New York vote remains in doubt as Mr. Brown presses his anti-establishment appeal to discontented voters. The new poll showed 25 percent of the likely Democratic voters are undecided, giving Mr. Brown a large audience that might be receptive to his message.

But, so far, the Clinton campaign again appears to be demonstrating the flexibility and resiliency that saved his candidacy from extinction in the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary after he faced unsubstantiated allegations of adultery and questions about his draft status during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Clinton's more recent political troubles were sparked by Mr. Brown's upset victory in last week's Connecticut primary. Mr. Brown came roaring into New York on a wave of momentum. Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, found himself on the defensive. Undeterred, Mr. Clinton and his aides quickly put into operation their double-barreled battle plan.

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