IT'S make-or-break time for Democrats.
The race for the party's presidential nomination moves with explosive swiftness during the next week. Some candidates are under pressure to win a major primary or quit.
The strain is beginning to show. The contest, a gentlemanly affair for months, is getting rough. Tempers are flaring. Candidates are throwing charges at one another like boys in a mud-ball fight.
Immediate focus tomorrow will be the primaries in Georgia, Maryland, and Colorado, and caucuses in four other states. Hundreds of delegates will be at stake, giving someone an opportunity to open a wide lead.
But during the past few days, issues gave way to name-calling. Words like "Grinch,disingenuous," and "cold-blooded" are flying around. Sen. Bob Kerrey charged that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's failure to serve during the Vietnam War will allow Republicans to open him up "like a boiled peanut" if he gets the nomination.
Governor Clinton ripped into former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas as "cold-blooded" for opposing a middle-class tax break, and blasted Mr. Tsongas for favoring "hundreds more" nuclear power plants.
Tsongas shot back, "That is a lie. That is a lie. That is a lie," at a debate in Colorado.
Going into tomorrow's contests, no one has a clear advantage:
* Tsongas, the New Hampshire victor, must show that he can do well outside of New England. His best chance: Maryland.
* Clinton must prove that he is a winner. Once considered the front-runner, he remains without a victory. Best hope: Georgia.
* Kerrey, fresh from his South Dakota triumph, is trying to undercut support for Clinton while winning another primary. Main target: Colorado.
* Former Calfornia Gov. Jerry Brown, briefly buoyed by a second-place finish in the Maine caucuses, must demonstrate that his campaign is still viable. Key state: Colorado.
* Sen. Tom Harkin, running out of cash, will emphasize the three caucuses. Vital state: Minnesota.
Anyone who fails to win tomorrow could quickly run out of campaign funds. Senator Harkin particularly must do well. Governor Brown, running a low-budget race, could carry on a while longer.
The major interest tomorrow focuses on Georgia. Clinton, the pre-race favorite with Southern voters, is ahead, but Tsongas and Kerrey have ganged up on Clinton there in hopes of stopping him in his own region.
Experts say Georgia will set the tone for Super Tuesday, March 10, an all-important test of strength in the South and elsewhere, when Clinton hopes to leap into a huge lead.
Although the Democratic fight has dragged on for months, candidates know the battle for the nomination now could be settled quickly - perhaps within eight to 15 days. Between March 3 and March 10, 1,287 delegates will be allotted in primaries and caucuses. Then, on March 17, if the question remains unsettled, there are two potentially definitive primaries, in Illinois and Michigan. As the pressure grows, even Tsongas, the most soft-spoken, has shown a tougher side. He observes that the race is "coming do wn to the wire. There are not a lot of endless days to work things out."
Georgia, a Bible-belt state, should measure the depth of Clinton's problems relating to charges that he had a long-running extramarital affair and that he sought to avoid the draft with an academic deferment during the Vietnam War.
The attack on Clinton is being led by Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner who lost part of a leg in Vietnam.
Claibourne Darden Jr., a veteran Atlanta pollster, says Kerrey's tactics may work.
Mr. Darden is convinced the charge of draft-dodging already has hurt Clinton among conservative Democrats, explaining, tongue-in-cheek:
"Down in south Georgia, they aren't so sure about Elvis, but they know Clinton is dead."
Yet pollster Del Ali cautions that most Georgians aren't ready to bury Clinton's political hopes yet. A survey of 352 probable Democratic voters in Georgia last week by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, where Mr. Ali is vice president, finds Clinton still leading with 39 percent. Tsongas has 17 percent; Brown, 8; Kerrey, 4; Harkin, 3.
Clinton remains in danger, however. Twenty-nine percent of Georgia's voters were still undecided.
The state also has an "open" primary, which means anyone - Democrat, Republican, or independent - can vote in the Democratic race.