WHEN Jerry Brown got into the Democratic presidential race, experts scoffed at his chances. But when Michigan votes on Tuesday, Mr. Brown will be taken very seriously - especially by Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas.
Brown, running what he calls an "insurgent campaign," is defying the odds and the collective wisdom of the experts. Although he is given little chance of getting the party's presidential nomination, the former California governor is proving that a candidate doesn't need $1,000 contributions to shake up the political establishment.
This is no by-the-book campaign. While Governor Clinton flies by chartered jet, Brown travels by chartered bus. While Mr. Tsongas hosts fancy fund-raisers, Brown raises his money in dribs and drabs through an 800 telephone number. While Clinton and Tsongas run costly TV ads, Brown gets exposure by appearing on radio talk shows. It's working far better than anyone expected. Even Brown seems startled by his successes, such as his Colorado primary victory over both Clinton and Tsongas. Support increasing
Brown draws increasing support from educated, liberal, activist Democrats, as well as some minorities. He is scoring on a number of issues: the environment, nuclear power, campaign reform, health care, and his opposition to entrenched special interests which he charges are controlling Washington.
Experts say Brown's success could be bad news for Tsongas. He is weaning votes away from the kind of up-scale, thinking person that Tsongas attracts - sometimes pulling away enough support to knock Tsongas down to third place in state primaries.
Political scientist Samuel Popkin of the University of California at San Diego, says that in the eyes of some liberals, Brown's appeal goes way beyond Tsongas's. As Dr. Popkin explains: "Paul [Tsongas] wants to save the country. Jerry wants to save the planet."
Now in Michigan, where he has appeared in a United Auto Workers Union jacket, Brown could threaten Clinton's drive to win union votes. Union members, many of whom backed Sen. Tom Harkin until he dropped out last week, are uneasy with Clinton, and Brown's camp smells an opportunity.
Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College, says Brown is a much-improved candidate, wowing students on the campus, packing a crowd of 600 into a room where only 300 were expected. "He's issues-oriented," Cronin says. "He talks about the environment, fighting world hunger, having not B-1 bombers, but B-1 trains.... He's better than I've ever seen him." Heart of the message
The heart of Brown's message isn't trains, bombers, or the environment, however. It is money - the corrosive effects of millions of dollars of campaign contributions on American democracy.
Large campaign donations are corrupting the election process, he says. Congressmen, presidents, and other elected officials do the bidding of the rich and powerful, while ignoring the needs of ordinary citizens.
When Brown was at Colorado College, he asked how many people in the audience had written $1,000 checks to politicians. Not a single hand went up.
"It is a positive and powerful message," Cronin says. "When Brown asked that question, people said, 'That's right. We're not included.' And they feel excluded. They realize presidential candidates have to hang around rich people to fund their campaigns."
Brown argues this is why America doesn't have guaranteed health care, why defense budgets stay so high, why Social Security taxes were raised on the middle class seven times in recent years, why tax breaks go to the wealthy.
He told a press conference in Washington: "The heart of the matter is, America is a very rich country that is now rigged increasingly against tens of millions of people. It is so because they don't have a voice. So I am trying in the best way I know how to be that voice." Toll-free number busy
Using a toll-free number, Brown's campaign now has logged 175,000 calls, and has raised $750,000, says Tom Pier, deputy press secretary. Another $450,000 has come through other channels. At a Los Angeles office with 30 operators, Brown was taking in $30,000 to $40,000 a week until his Colorado victory. "But now we're doing that every day," Mr. Pier says. The 800 number has taken campaign giving "out of the back rooms," Pier says. Whereas Tsongas gets 40 percent of his funds from $1,000 donors, and Presid ent Bush gets 80 percent of his money that way, Brown refuses to accept contributions over $100.
"This campaign is about changing the power balance," Brown says. Unless that happens, he insists politics will be just "empty words" on issues like crime and drugs, but without significant national progress.