NEW YORK -- The Democratic primary campaign here is ending as it began with the front-running Bill Clinton defending himself in still another controversy about an episode in his past.
Mr. Clinton remains the clear favorite to defeat former Gov. Jerry Brown in the contest for the state's 244 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. But questions about his honesty and the likely turnout cast at least a shadow of doubt.
Democrats also will vote in primaries tomorrow in Wisconsin, where the prize will be 82 delegates, and in Kansas, with 36. But the political community's focus has been on the high-decibel fight in New York between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown.
The stakes in the New York primary have grown far beyond the delegate prize. If Mr. Clinton wins in New York, the Arkansas governor ,11l will have more than 1,200 of the 2,145 delegates needed for the nomination but, more to the point, will have regained the momentum he enjoyed after winning in Illinois and Michigan on March 17 before being upset by Mr. Brown in Connecticut on March 24.
But if it is true that a victory will give Mr. Clinton an apparently obstacle-free road to the nomination, it is also true that a defeat could begin to unravel the fabric of his position as the front-runner.
The tenuousness of Mr. Clinton's position was illustrated over the final weekend of the campaign by still another case in which he apparently has been caught dissembling on a touchy personal issue -- this time, the history of his efforts to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Clinton had conceded that while a Rhodes Scholar in England in 1969 he had declared his intention to enter an ROTC program at the University of Arkansas as a way to avoid being drafted when he returned from abroad. But now it has been disclosed that he seized the ROTC option only after receiving a ** notice of induction from his draft board.
The revelation was strikingly similar to another one in which he had been less than forthcoming -- when he admitted he had tried marijuana "a time or two" when he was in England after repeatedly implying he had never used drugs by saying he had never "broken the laws of my country."
Taken together, the episodes sharpened the picture of the Arkansas Democrat as a "Slick Willie" guilty of dissembling even on issues that didn't represent direct and serious threats to his political health.
The continued controversies -- about the marijuana, the draft, Gennifer Flowers, playing golf at an all-white club in Little Rock and Hillary Clinton's incautious statements -- have made Mr. Clinton the butt of jokes in New York and a candidate who seems to evoke little zealous support among his fellow Democrats.
But the demographics of the electorate seemed to create a highly favorable context for Mr. Clinton in tomorrow's primary. He is the clear favorite of Jewish voters, who are likely to cast one-fourth to one-third of the 1.2 million to 1.4 million votes to be cast.
FTC But it has been Mr. Brown who has been attracting the most enthusiastic and energetic crowds of voters drawn to his general complaint that the people have been robbed of their power by a corrupt political establishment. His message has been effective enough so that the Clinton campaign, while claiming polls showing their candidate more than 10 points ahead, has continued to hammer Mr. Brown with commercials challenging his record as governor of California.
There are two obvious wild cards in the preprimary calculations. One is the size of the vote cast for former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, who suspended his campaign last month but whose name remains on the ballot. Supporters trying to organize a protest vote for him were encouraged over the weekend.
In an interview on ABC-TV's "This Week with David Brinkley" yesterday, Mr. Tsongas said he may re-enter the presidential race, depending on how well he and Mr. Clinton match up in the New York primary. And Newsday, the big Long Island-based newspaper, endorsed a vote for Mr. Tsongas as a way to express dissatisfaction with both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown.
But the key may be the turnout. Although 45 percent of Democrats voted in the 1988 primary in New York, party leaders expect a sharp drop this time, largely because of the doubts about Mr. Clinton that have been evident throughout the three-week campaign in New York.
In Wisconsin, a poll published in the Milwaukee Journal yesterday gave Mr. Clinton a lead of 51 percent to 43 percent over Mr. Brown among 409 adults who said they were likely to vote in tomorrow's Democratic primary. The survey was taken between Tuesday and Friday, before weekend visits by the two candidates.
Ed Garvey, the former National Football League players' representative in charge of the Wisconsin Brown campaign, dismissed the figures as biased, saying the paper "al
ways runs its polls consistent with its editorial policy," which has supported Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Garvey conceded that television ads by the Clinton campaign attacking Mr. Brown's proposal for a flat income tax of 13 percent have hurt the former California governor.
But Mr. Garvey said that the enthusiasm level has remained so high for Mr. Brown, that he was not expected to return to Wisconsin before the voting. Mr. Clinton is to make a stop in Milwaukee later today for a meeting of ethnic and labor supporters.
Simon Rosenberg, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Clinton campaign, said the endorsement of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who had worked the state hard before bowing out of the race, had helped Mr. Clinton with local union leadership endorsements. He also said that editorial criticism of Mr. Brown's flat-tax plan-- the Milwaukee Sentinel called it "a dopey idea" -- undercut his support among organized labor.
But Mr. Garvey insisted that labor rank and file remained strong for Mr. Brown, noting that 23 of 28 members of the former Harkin steering committee in the state were now for Mr. Brown, to only four who have come out for Mr. Clinton. Mr. Rosenberg challenged Mr. Garvey's claim of former Harkin support.
Wisconsin, which has no party registration, and is open to all comers, will decide on 82 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in New York in July. Nine unpledged delegates will also attend as "super delegates."