WASHINGTON — DEMOCRATIC voters are seriously divided between rich and poor, city and suburb, and sometimes by race as the party speeds toward Super Tuesday's presidential primaries. Party insiders worry that the split, while not bitter or acrimonious, could prolong the Democratic nominating campaign for months and eventually help President Bush.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, widely regarded as the front-runner, has gathered his principal support from two major groups of Democrats - minorities and low-income whites - by putting forward a mildly populist economic appeal. His major rival is former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who has drawn remarkable strength from well-educated, affluent Democrats in the suburbs, where Republicans usually run well. By and large, Mr. Tsongas's support is entirely white.
Meanwhile, the Democratic field narrowed yesterday when Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska dropped out. After winning only one primary, South Dakota, his outlook was bleak for Super Tuesday.
The current leaders, Governor Clinton and Mr. Tsongas, are having great difficulty extending their reach beyond their core groups to lock up the nomination. Clinton runs poorly with better-educated whites, while Tsongas's cerebral campaign, popular with PhD's, creates little enthusiasm among the poor. Further confusing the picture, Tsongas has attracted independent voters into the Democratic election process with his pro-business economic proposals.
Senior Democrats aren't sure where all this will lead. They are confused and concerned. Yet at a breakfast meeting with reporters, former Democratic Party chairman John White suggested Tsongas was helping reverse a Democratic tendency to go "way too far" in bashing business interests:
"The message he preaches is a new one for us. We haven't heard that kind of rhetoric.... I wouldn't call him a Democratic heretic, but certainly from an economic [standpoint], it is a new position for traditional, hard-core Democrats."
But Clinton derides Tsongas's policies as too close to the "trickle down" economics of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Clinton and Tsongas are particularly divided on whether middle-class Americans should get a tax break that would be paid for by higher levies on the rich. Clinton says yes; Tsongas, no.
Political scientist William Galston of the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs says the eventual winner will have to extend his reach by finding additional support among the four major "pools" of Democratic voters.
The largest pool is upscale white suburban voters, with whom Tsongas is strongest. In 1984, former Sen. Gary Hart was able to reach into this expanding group very effectively, and nearly upset front-runner Walter Mondale.
The second large pool is minority voters, including both blacks and Hispanics. In the Georgia primary, Clinton nabbed 74 percent of black voters, who were critical to his victory. Blacks should also help Clinton immeasurably on Super Tuesday across the South.
Small-town and rural whites form a third reservoir of voters, and here Clinton also runs well. But many of these voters have abandoned the Democrats in recent years to vote for Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and, this year, Patrick Buchanan.
Finally there is organized labor. As Dr. Galston observes, unionists feel torn this year, giving their hearts to US Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and their heads to Clinton. So far, the unions' influence has been small, but that will change when the big Northern primaries begin in the next two weeks.
By March 17, some 2,326 delegates, 54 percent of the total attending the Democratic National Convention, will be chosen, and the political picture should begin to clarify with answers to key questions:
Can Tsongas expand his support beyond the suburbs? Unless he does, his campaign could be doomed.
How heavily will blacks turn out to support Clinton? If they decide to sit out the primaries, he could be badly hurt, especially in Illinois and Michigan on March 17.
Will labor unions, heavily represented in states like Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, rally to Clinton if Senator Harkin falters? They could be decisive.
Galston has trouble finding where Tsongas can go next. Labor unions are leery of Tsongas's Spartan economic strategy. Blacks respond more favorably to Clinton's rousing message of social reform than to Tsongas's emphasis on capital investment to create jobs. And Tsongas has a problem connecting to small-town whites because "he is not at all populist," Galston says.
Clinton has more options. Without the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the campaign, Clinton could unite blacks and lower-income Southern whites, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976, and perhaps grab the nomination if he can also get the support of organized labor.
Clinton's social message, which includes a heavy dose of individual responsibility, might also draw some independent voters to his side.
On Super Tuesday, Clinton is favored to run away with the big primary in Texas and do well in other Southern states, including Florida. Tsongas should carry Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Four years ago, Michael Dukakis, another Massachusetts Democrat, did extremely well in Florida and Texas.
For Tsongas to match that, analysts say he must widen his appeal and overcome money and organizational problems.