BILL CLINTON and George Bush ran up victory flags across the South on Super Tuesday. But before the smoke of battle cleared, candidates were already girding for the next showdown, in the Midwest.
Governor Clinton, surprising the experts, bested Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown handily in Florida and proved for the first time that he could win in a large, cosmopolitan state.
President Bush defeated Patrick Buchanan in every primary and now is moving rapidly toward capturing enough delegates to assure his nomination.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Tsongas carried Massachusetts, his home turf, plus Rhode Island and Delaware. But the message of Super Tuesday was clear: Tsongas is in trouble. He must run powerfully in next Tuesday's primaries in Illinois and Michigan or Clinton could gallop off with the nomination.
Political scientist Samuel Popkin of the University of California at San Deigo says Clinton is "absolutely the front-runner now" in the Democratic presidential contest.
He says Illinois provides an excellent battleground to settle the contest between Clinton and Tsongas and is Tsongas's last chance to show that, outside the East, he can put together a real coalition.
Tom Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, concedes Super Tuesday revived Clinton's candidacy, which was damaged last month by charges of marital infidelity and draft avoidance during the Vietnam War. But Dr. Mann says that calling Clinton the front-runner is "problematic" because so many voters have serious doubts about his suitability.
Those sentiments are shared by many other observers. Mark Shields, a columnist and CNN commentator known for his wit, puts it this way: "Bill Clinton is carrying more baggage than United Van Lines."
Horace Busby, a political analyst and former secretary to the Cabinet for President Lyndon Johnson, calls Clinton "a very weak candidate, although maybe the best of a weak lot of Democrats."
Mr. Busby says that "no one is stirring the pot about Clinton" and his problems, but it will happen sooner or later. "The Republicans don't want to stir it until he gets the nomination."
However, all the political heat during the next week will be on Tsongas. He must do everything right to overcome Clinton's many advantages, including superior fund-raising and better organization.
Tsongas clearly was outmaneuvered on Super Tuesday. Taking advantage of the exit of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey from the Democratic race, Clinton developed a populist message for Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and other Southern states.
Clinton pounded Tsongas as a candidate who would trim social security benefits, raise taxes on gasoline, and bring back what Democrats call "Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics."
Stung by the attacks, Tsongas abandoned the economic message that gave him credibility in earlier races and began striking back. The campaign became personalized, with Tsongas the clear loser. Even if the personal attacks stop, Tsongas still has serious problems in the Midwest next week. But Tsongas insists he is doing well. He pointed out yesterday that he has won six of the eight contests between himself and Clinton when they were outside their home regions.
Popkin observes that Democratic voters now are divided into two principal groups between Tsongas and Clinton, and Clinton's group is larger.
As Popkin explains it: "Tsongas has a message that strikes better-educated people as absolutely right from their point of view on two grounds. One, he says we should straighten out trade policies so our skills will score. He also says we have to pay for the excesses of the Reagan years with a cold shower. For successful people, that 'back to Calvinism' message is really appealing."
Popkin adds: "Clinton is talking to people who have already paid." They are hurting and they don't want to hear about more pain. For Clinton, this has produced an outpouring of support among blacks, Hispanics, and lower-income whites. In some states he is rolling up more than 75 percent of the black vote, with Tsongas down in the single digits.
The question for Democrats is: How do they appeal to both these groups, which they will need against Mr. Bush in November? Popkin says he thinks that may be extremely difficult. If Clinton is nominated, he may have trouble attracting Tsongas's following.
Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Buchanan and Bush, whom Buchanan often refers to as "King George." On Tuesday, Buchanan demanded that Bush fire Republican Party chairman Rich Bond for suggesting that Buchanan was like former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke "with a coat and tie."