VOTERS are sending mixed messages to presidential candidates this season and are spreading consternation through both the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Balloting this week produced two Democratic front-runners - former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Some analysts say the neck-and-neck race between the two could go all the way to the Democratic national convention in July.
On the Republican side, President Bush is winning all the primaries, but Patrick Buchanan's insurgent campaign is garnering enough votes to ensure trouble for the White House for weeks to come. Party insiders, such as US Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, worry that the GOP could be damaged by the intense, often nasty infighting.
The next showdown comes in South Carolina on Saturday, followed quickly by Super Tuesday primaries extending from Texas to Florida to Massachusetts on March 10.
Mr. Clinton appears poised for the biggest short-term gains. His big win in Georgia on March 3 with 58 percent percent of the vote was his first victory of the campaign, and he was exultant.
But Tsongas was also cheered by triumphs in Maryland, Utah, and Washington State.
The biggest surprise of the day came in Colorado, where former California Gov. Jerry Brown catapulted into a first-place finish with a surge of support during the final 100 hours.
US Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa could also point to victories in the Minnesota and Idaho caucuses.
William Galston, former issues director for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984, says: "The Clinton campaign, in its wildest dreams, never believed it would get over 50 percent, much less nearly 60. This is really eye-popping, and it bodes well for him on Super Tuesday."
Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, says: "The Georgia results will propel Clinton all the way through Super Tuesday. No one is in a position to challenge him."
Yet Tsongas could also hail his performance. His first-place finish in New Hampshire last month was often discounted as a regional victory. But after his two primary victories outside New England on Tuesday he could say: "Today I became the breakthrough kid.... By winning Maryland and winning Utah, we have put that issue [of regionalism] to rest." Even though Tsongas and Clinton could puff out their chests after this week's voting, the party hardly seems closer to picking its nominee. Each has serious we aknesses.
Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster, was unimpressed by Clinton's performance in Georgia, for example. Turnout was exceedingly low, he observes, and Clinton "still is not a viable candidate nationally, any more than Jesse Jackson, who won Georgia's primary in 1988. This primary does not represent the people of Georgia."
Mr. Darden is equally skeptical about Tsongas's success. He says the Tsongas campaign, in organization, fund-raising, research, field staff, and "everything else a good, first-class campaign needs" lags far behind that of the 1988 candidate from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis.
The candidates this year are unusually weak, Darden concludes, adding: "People will always complain about their lack of choices, but this year it is acute."
Grumbling can also be heard about the Republicans.
Mr. Bush carried Georgia, where Mr. Buchanan had made his greatest effort since New Hampshire, by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.
BUT in a worrisome signal, 44 percent of Buchanan's voters said they would not cast ballots for Bush in November. Buchanan's strategy of attacking the president on issues like school prayer and pornography are undermining Bush's strength with both moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party, exit surveys found in Georgia.
Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, says the Bush-Buchanan spat is definitely beginning to hurt the president: "It doesn't guarantee the Democrats will capture the White House, but it is almost guaranteeing it will be a competitive general election."
Mr. Ali continues: "I honestly believe Buchanan now has a shot in California [in June], a good shot of embarrassing Bush there, or even winning California."
Ali explains that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California has slumped in popularity because of new sales taxes, and two simultaneous US Senate races there are also tearing at the fabric of the GOP. "So Wilson will endorse Bush, and Pat will go in and say, 'Wilson and Bush are clones [who raise taxes], and I am the true conservative. I am closer to Ronald Reagan, the greatest governor, and who are you going to vote for? Ali says.
But Dr. Galston doubts that Bush can be defeated, especially if one uses the 1976 Republican primary contest as a guide. That year, Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination, and even after Mr. Reagan carried some states, Mr. Ford got the party's endorsement.
Buchanan's challenge isn't nearly so serious, Galston says.