WASHINGTON — THE Democratic race for the White House becomes increasingly unpredictable.
South Dakotans vote today in their presidential primary, and if Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska wins, as the polls predict, the Democratic contest will become even more confused.
Every primary and caucus so far has made it more difficult to calculate the eventual winner.
First, United States Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa grabbed 46 delegates in his home state caucuses, immediately jumping out to an early lead among the five major Democratic candidates.
Then, former US Sen. Paul Tsongas captured the title of front-runner a week ago by handily winning the New Hampshire primary. But already his front-runner's crown is slipping. Brown surprises in Maine
On Sunday, former California Gov. Jerry Brown stunned the political community by crossing the finish line in the Maine caucuses in a virtual dead heat with Mr. Tsongas. Mr. Brown had finished last among the major candidates in New Hampshire. It was the first time in 20 years that the winner in New Hampshire didn't immediately follow with a solid victory in Maine.
Now comes South Dakota, where Senator Kerrey, an also-ran in New Hampshire and last in Maine, may be able to claim a major triumph.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who was presumed to be the front-runner until a month ago, has yet to win a contest. He finished second in New Hampshire and a disappointing fourth in Maine.
Governor Clinton's time may come quickly, however. He is heavily favored in next week's Georgia primary.
Democratic regulars say that, so far, no one has been able to "close a deal" with the party's voters - to convince them that he is the clear choice to oppose the Republican candidate (presumably President Bush) in November.
Terry Michael, a former Democratic Party official, says that unless someone breaks out of the pack in the next few weeks, prospects are growing for a political battle that could rage all the way to the final primaries in June. There's even the possibility of an open battle at the July 13-16 convention in New York City, if no one gains a majority by then.
While Kerrey may win in South Dakota today, many eyes remain on Tsongas, who still is the man to beat.
The former senator from Massachusetts attempted to downplay Brown's surprising performance in Maine. "My fight is with Bill Clinton at this point," he told reporters after his photo finish in Maine. He discounted his showing at the caucuses, which are attended largely by party activists. "We're doing fine. Caucuses are not my strong point," he said.
But Brown, who limits contributions to his campaign to $100, claimed a victory over the political establishment. "It's certainly an upset," he says. "It has to be a shock to the pundits in Washington, who early on believed that only $1,000 checks and obscene campaign war chests could propel a candidacy." Clinton turns to Georgia
While Clinton hopes to reignite his campaign in Georgia, Tsongas looks forward to Maryland and Colorado, both also voting March 3. His momentum out of New Hampshire does seem to be paying off in the West. The Denver Post poll finds Tsongas suddenly in the lead there, with Clinton close behind. Colorado was long considered Kerrey country.
Meanwhile, voters are getting generous exposure to the candidates, at least if they have cable service that features C-Span and CNN. In a South Dakota Democratic debate broadcast nationally Sunday on C-Span, voters got their first close look at a sixth Democratic candidate, former Irvine, Calif., Mayor Larry Agran.
Mr. Agran immediately went on the attack, blasting Tsongas's favorable views toward nuclear power, and excoriating Brown for raising $30 million for the California Democratic Party as its chairman, and then basing his campaign on the evils of big money.
The other candidates used many of their favorite lines, which were honed to a fine edge in the prolonged New Hampshire campaign.
Kerrey, sounding far more confident on familiar Midwest turf, hammered at his favorite theme: national health care.
Harkin attacked his rivals repeatedly in an effort to strip support away from the leaders. He accused Tsongas, for example, of being a "cheerleader" for former President Ronald Reagan's tax plan in the early 1980s, a plan which Harkin says favored the rich.
Brown emphasized the need to stop big contributions from organizations like the medical lobby, which he claims is responsible for defeating national health care with large contributions to Congress.
Clinton spoke favorably of boot camps for young drug offenders, and of new ways to fund college education by letting young people work off the cost of college with community service jobs.
Tsongas called for efforts to control the national debt, and denounced "Japan bashing."