Democrats in a no-win situation Choice may be a split party or an unelectable candidate.


WASHINGTON -- For the Democratic Party, yesterday's primaries may have provided the worst possible outcome.

On the one hand, the voters have given Bill Clinton a rich enough prize of delegates to put him close to 1,300 and in sight of the 2,145 needed for the nomination.

On the other, those same results have defined the dimensions of the resistance to Mr. Clinton. The turnout fell far below what it was in 1988, pointing unmistakably to reaction against him. The same was obviously true in the fact that he could win only 41 percent of the vote in New York against a candidate as flawed as Jerry Brown and another, Paul Tsongas, who had suspended his campaign. The message was that there is something seriously wrong with the Democratic choice right now.

But there is a difference between recognizing a problem, as Democratic leaders clearly do, and finding a solution. Writing a scenario that denies Mr. Clinton the nomination is not impossible, but writing one that doesn't tear the Democratic Party into small pieces is another matter.

The obvious way to stop Mr. Clinton now would be for Mr. Tsongas to revive his campaign and take advantage of his new celebrity. Since he is already on the ballot in the rest of the primaries, he is positioned to bring his present holding of 539 delegates to 800 or 900. With the delegates for Mr. Brown and other candidates who have stepped aside plus the uncommitted, it would be possible to deny Mr. Clinton the 2,145 necessary for the nomination.

But this is not the best year to run a brokered convention with all the implications of the political establishment thwarting the will of the primary voters. In another time, Democrats seeking a way to stop Mr. Clinton might look to their leaders in Congress to take the initiative in urging a new candidate in the equation. Given the ill repute of Congress today, that idea is laughable.

But a brokered convention could be forced on the Democrats in some circumstances. Any further disclosures of damaging information about Mr. Clinton would cause the kind of panic in the party that would be an excuse to risk the negatives of brokering. The Arkansas Democrat already carries so much baggage it is a miracle -- or testimony to the weakness of his competition -- he has not sunk from sight.

There are two immediate questions about Mr. Clinton's future. The first is whether a significant bloc of the officially unpledged superdelegates -- 772 party officials and officeholders -- will move to support him on the theory his nomination is inevitable. At this point, Mr. Clinton has only about one-fourth of that group, but among politicians there is always a fear of being left behind when the train leaves the station.

The second and even more pressing question is whether Mr. Tsongas will use his new stature to return to the campaign in the April 28 Pennsylvania primary. The former Massachusetts senator was meeting with advisers today to form a decision likely to come tomorrow.

In some respects, Pennsylvania is difficult ground for Mr. Tsongas. Union voters in other states have not bought his argument that the Democratic Party needs to make common cause with business to create the new jobs required for national economic health. And the union vote is a major influence in western Pennsylvania. On the other hand, Mr. Clinton won in New York essentially on the strength of support from Jewish voters and blacks, neither as potent a force in Pennsylvania.

And Mr. Tsongas won a plurality among Roman Catholic ethnic voters in New York even without being on the ballot. They are a major force all over Pennsylvania.

But Mr. Tsongas' prospects for becoming a force in the rest of the campaign rest far less on calculations about voter blocs than on the special aura he has achieved as the "clean" alternative.

It is always possible, of course, that Mr. Clinton will sail through the rest of the primaries and turn out to be a formidable opponent for President Bush. As he demonstrated again in his victory speech last night, the Arkansas Democrat can be a compelling personal campaigner. And the president is clearly carrying some baggage of his own on domestic issues.

But right now, the Democrats are in a no-win situation -- apparently on an irreversible course toward nominating a candidate already seriously compromised. That is the message from New York.

Tuesday's Primaries

* New York -- Bill Clinton had 41 percent, Paul Tsongas 29 percent and Jerry Brown 26 percent.

* Kansas -- Mr. Clinton garnered 51 percent, Mr. Tsongas 15 percent, Mr. Brown 13 percent and "none of the above" 14 percent.

* Wisconsin -- Mr. Clinton had 38 percent, Mr. Brown 35 percent and Mr. Tsongas 22 percent.

* Minnesota -- The non-binding vote was too close to call, with Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown about even at 32 percent and Mr. Tsongas at 23 percent.

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