At first glance, the race for the Presidency looks like a monstrous muddle after the first three weeks of primaries. Republican guerrilla Patrick J. Buchanan looks sure to sap a third of the vote in every contest from a more and more hapless George Bush. And the seven states that held Democratic caucuses and primaries on Mar. 3 produced four different winners.
But things are clearer than they seem. As the race heads toward the Southern battlegrounds where the crucial contests of "Super Tuesday" on Mar. 10 will be fought, the Republican contest is over. Buchanan may leave Bush with wounds that will bleed all the way to November, but he can't stop the President's renomination. Meanwhile, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton has emerged as the clear Democratic front-runner, even though former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas' Maryland victory made him the first hopeful to win a primary outside his home region. The outcome of contests in the industrial heartland of Michigan and Illinois on Mar. 17 could well clinch the nomination for Clinton.
That's not to say that there won't be bumps along the way. Clinton seems to have put allegations of extramarital affairs and draft-dodging behind him. But the scandals have left him doubly vulnerable: Any fresh revelations would blow him out of the race.
Still, Mar. 10 is when Clinton's meticulously organized campaign finally pays off. The Arkansas governor is heavily favored in Texas and five other Southern states. He should come away from Super Tuesday with a rich haul of delegates--and tremendous momentum as the campaign moves north. "Tsongas' campaign depends on momentum, and he won't get it" in the South, says University of South Carolina political scientist Earl Black.
MAGNOLIA LINE. On the Republican side, the "Junior Tuesday" victories were far from sweet for Bush. Buchanan stole 36% of the vote in the Georgia primary and scored a respectable 30% showing in Colorado and Maryland, states uhere he hardly campaigned. But he has won only 20 delegates to Bush's 340 because of the winner-take-all rules of many GOP primaries. Now, his campaign heads into Bush country--the President's adopted home state of Texas, and a "magnolia line" of Deep South states that gave Bush strong support in 1988.
If Buchanan is to turn his candidacy into more than a right-wing temper tantrum, he needs an outright win--and fast. Party operatives will soon turn up the heat on Buchanan to quit the race or risk ceding the White House to the Democrats. So far, Buchanan seems unimpressed. On Mar. 4, he called on Bush to drop out of the race.
Even if Buchanan were to quit soon, he has already done the President grave harm. Privately, Bush political advisers now concede they vastly underestimated voter alienation. "Buchanan has seized that 36% core of Ronald Reagan supporters in our party who never liked George Bush to begin with," says one senior GOP adviser.
The biggest success the pugnacious Buchanan has had so far is in pushing Bush into a state of high pander. The President offered an astonishing mea culpa on Mar. 3, saying that his 1990 tax-raising budget deal with Democrats was "a mistake." That admission was only the latest in a lengthening string of Bush flip-flops and political miscues.
LACK OF PRINCIPLE. Indeed, as the President tries to recapture GOP conservatives, Administration policy decisions seem more and more to be driven by political panic. On Mar. 4, as the campaign shifted to Texas, Bush suddenly endorsed a proposed tax break for independent oil and gas producers. Such ad hoc swings could well backfire, as both Buchanan and the Democrats charge that the President lacks principles. "Bush doesn't stand for anything," says a senior Reagan White House aide. "That's coming across to people."
You would think the GOP chaos would have Democrats honing their axes for the fall slaughter. But the contest for the Democratic nomination has become a curiously joyless slugfest. True, the increasingly marginal Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska may soon bow out, and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa may follow close behind. But former California Governor Jerry Brown's surprise victory in Colorado means he'll be able to stay in the race.
Super Tuesday offers Clinton the chance to break out far ahead. The contests in seven Southern and border states will choose 633 delegates, almost one-third of the total needed for the nomination. With 254 delegates in hand, and buoyed by a bigger-than-anticipated 57%-24% Georgia victory over Tsongas, Clinton is now coming on as the Southern Superman. He is sharpening his attacks on Tsongas and redefining himself as a populist, while painting his rival as a trickle-down Republican in disguise.
Tsongas, with 119 delegates, could still surprise Clinton in Florida. He appeals to transplanted Northerners and upscale suburbanites, while Clinton courts blacks, labor, and the elderly. Says Mason-Dixon Research Inc. pollster J. Bradford Coker: "Florida will come down to class warfare between Clinton and Tsongas."
That's a battle Democrats usually wage against Republicans. It will take two more weeks for Democrats to sort out the field. But with George Bush looking more and more like Gerald Ford, a Democratic governor with a Southern accent may have a certain appeal.
THE CRUCIAL CONTESTS COMING UP State Date Democratic delegates* GOP delegates** TEXAS MAR. 10 196 121 Super Tuesday's grand prize. Like Georgia, Texas is Clinton's to win or lose. Bush counts on winning big in one of his home states FLORIDA MAR. 10 148 97 A key test for Democrats. Upscale Floridians like Tsongas, blacks and the elderly like Clinton. Bush should hold his own MICHIGAN MAR. 17 131 72 Sick economy makes Michigan worth watching. Buchanan angling for another Bush-whack ILLINOIS MAR. 17 164 85 Clinton is well-organized, but Tsongas is coming on. And look out, Mr. President: Buchanan may capture blue-collar Chicagoans *Needed to nominate: 2,142 **Needed to nominate: 1,104 DATA: BW