Paul Simon's long road ahead. Campaign's goal is to survive to Atlanta, his strategists say

PAUL SIMON wants to become the phoenix of the 1988 presidential campaign. With no clear Democratic front-runner emerging from Tuesday's super battle in the South, Mr. Simon hopes to rekindle his campaign in his home state of Illinois, which holds its primary next Tuesday.

It is a huge political gamble.

As the junior US senator from Illinois, Simon has held a clear edge here over his presidential rivals. A Chicago Sun-Times poll two weeks ago showed Simon with a commanding lead - 46 percent support among Democrats likely to vote.

Several political analysts here believe he can pull out a victory in Illinois.

``I think he's going to win,'' says Paul Green of Governors State University in suburban Chicago. Illinois Democratic leaders are working hard to ensure a victory, he adds.

But the Illinois senator faces some troubling questions that could spell an unexpected and disastrous defeat.

His two strongest competitors in Illinois - Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson - finished well in Tuesday's balloting in the South and plan strong campaigns here. Simon, meanwhile, runs the risk of appearing unelectable to Illinois voters.

For example, Simon has not won a single contest in the 26 state primaries and caucuses so far. He opted out of Super Tuesday and finished a dismal third in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is in fifth place in the delegate count - behind four candidates and the uncommitted category.

Even if he wins Illinois, he will have to raise substantial sums to carry a televised message to other states where voters are less familiar with him. Thus, Simon's strategists are painting their candidate as a survivor, rather than a victor, in the long race to Atlanta.

``We're clearly going to pick our nominee in Atlanta,'' says Brian Lunde, Simon's national campaign director. ``None of these candidates can be elected on the first ballot.''

According to Mr. Lunde, Governor Dukakis - who leads the Democratic pack by a small margin - will be virtually unable to win the nomination on the first convention ballot. To do it, he would need to win about 70 percent of the delegates in the remaining primaries and caucuses, he says. Thus, Simon will represent an alternative candidate at convention time.

This strategy runs certain risks, political analysts say.

If Simon loses Illinois - either to a surging Dukakis or to Jackson, who also calls Illinois home - the political damage could affect not only his presidential chances but his chances for reelection in the Senate in 1990 as well, these observers say.

Some of these observers - particularly Republicans - think Simon's failures in the presidential race already have hurt him for the 1990 Senate reelection race.

``I think Simon has hurt himself greatly,'' says Thomas Roeser, founder of the Republican Assembly of Illinois, a conservative grass-roots organization.

But Democratic analysts say that long-term political damage is not certain.

Some huge losers in the presidential sweepstakes - such as Democrat John Glenn in 1984 - went on to win their Senate seats handily. Others, such as Democrat George McGovern, eventually lost their Senate seats.

In a March 10 article about Paul Simon's presidential bid, the Monitor incorrectly stated that Senator Simon ``finished a dismal third in Iowa and New Hampshire.'' Mr. Simon placed second in Iowa, winning 26.7 percent of the Democratic delegates selected, to Richard Gephardt's 31.2 percent.

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