WASHINGTON — LIKE a sprinter running toward the tape, Bill Clinton appears to be racing toward the Democratic presidential nomination. But as the cheers of his supporters grow louder, one large doubt remains:
Will something unforeseen make the front-runner stumble and fall before he crosses the finish line?
Governor Clinton's easy victories in Illinois and Michigan on Tuesday put him far ahead of former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and former California Gov. Jerry Brown in the number of convention delegates won.
The solid Midwest vote gives Clinton tremendous momentum prior to the next primaries - in Connecticut, New York, and Wisconsin.
On the Republican side, President George Bush trounced Patrick Buchanan in both Illinois and Michigan. Buchanan aides now concede that Mr. Bush will easily be renominated at the Republican National Convention this summer.
Experts, as well as his opponents, say Democrat Clinton's greatest remaining challenge may be his own past.
Mr. Brown says of Clinton: "This business of a scandal-a-week - it's not good for the Democratic Party." And Mr. Tsongas has called Clinton unelectable.
Yet analysts say Clinton is remarkably durable. David Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale University, concludes: "A month ago, I thought he was fatally damaged. But I'm not so sure any more. He seems to have an impressive capacity to pick himself up and keep going."
Along the campaign trail, some humorously call Clinton the "Timex candidate" because he "takes a licking and keeps on ticking."
Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, says Clinton's ability to survive is "amazing... His damage-control is incredible." Ali credits Clinton for knowing how to defend himself. "He goes on the offensive. He knows that once your opponent defines you, you are finished." Ali, Mayhew, and other analysts point out that the unfavorable reports about Clinton keep piling up, though they are sometimes unsubstantiated. Among them:
* Clinton was accused by an acquaintance, Gennifer Flowers, of carrying on an extramarital affair with her. Clinton denied it, though he admitted doing other things which caused pain to his wife, Hillary.
* A letter written by Clinton when he was a Rhodes Scholar indicated that, during the Vietnam war, he promised to enter a college military training program as a way of avoiding the draft. Later he put himself into the draft pool.
* The New York Times on March 8 reported that, over a decade ago, Clinton and his wife were business partners in a land deal with James McDougal, the owner of a now-failed savings and loan association.
The S&L was subject to state regulation when Clinton was governor. Clinton denied that anything improper was done, and noted that he lost more than $25,000 in the venture.
* The Washington Post on March 15 reported on Hillary Clinton's role as a partner in the Rose law firm in Little Rock. The firm represents business clients before state agencies which include appointees of the governor.
The article indicated a potential conflict of interest, even though Ms. Clinton says she refuses to take her share of the law firm's profits in dealings with the state.
All this exploded in a presidential debate prior to Tuesday's primaries.
Brown said: "I think he [Clinton] has got a big electability problem.... He's funneling money to his wife's law firm for state business.... His wife's law firm is representing clients before the state of Arkansas agencies, his appointees. And one of the keys is the poultry industry which his wife's law firm represents."
Brown continued: "There's 270 miles of Arkansas rivers that are polluted with fecal coliform bacteria that are unsafe for humans or fish. So it's not only corruption, it's an environmental disaster, and it's the kind of conflict of interest that is incompatible with the kind of public servant that we expect in the president of the United States."
Clinton fired back, jabbing his finger at Brown, who stood only a few feet away: "Jerry comes here with his family wealth and his $1,500 suits and makes a lying accusation about my wife.... I never funneled any money to my wife's law firm. Never."
Clinton has tried to turn the repeated attacks into a plus. He calls himself "tough enough to stand up to the garbage the Republicans throw at you."
Even so, the "garbage" Democrats are already tossing at Clinton is beginning to stick. A Mason-Dixon survey in Illinois found that nearly as many voters have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton (29 percent) as have a positive view (35 percent).
Democrats worry that Clinton could be seriously wounded if Brown keeps hammering.
But Brown appears determined. He told an audience after Tuesday's election that, in the style of Thomas Jefferson, it is time to put power back into the hands of average people. "The power of the few is funding the campaign of Mr. Clinton," Brown charged.