YOU could call Bill Clinton the Uniroyal candidate: No matter how many punctures his candidacy absorbs, it keeps roaring along. He could still suffer a blowout on the road to the Democratic convention, but his comfortable wins in the Illinois and Michigan primaries Tuesday have left his rivals far back, and on balding tires.
Mr. Clinton put together the same coalition of black and white, blue-collar voters that swept him to victory across the South on Super Tuesday. With nearly half the delegates he needs for the Democratic nomination, the Arkansas governor looks more and more like the party's standard-bearer against George Bush.
After two dismal Tuesdays in a row, Paul Tsongas can't even lay undisputed claim to the runner-up title. Mr. Tsongas's failure to broaden his base beyond upscale Democrats and his third-place finish behind Jerry Brown in Michigan throw further doubt on any assertions of "electability." As for Mr. Brown, his low-budget, free-swinging populist campaign has become good political theater, but we don't expect to see this turtle-necked candidate pull off a tortoise-and-hare upset.
Many Democratic leaders, while admiring Clinton's manifest political skills, still dread that more grist for scandal will emerge to taint the front-runner. Clinton already, in a wag's phrase, "carries more baggage than UPS."
Remember, though, that another Democratic candidate went into the primaries under suspicion from party elders and burdened by a number of presumed minuses. In 1960 John Kennedy was the son of a stock-market manipulator and Hitler appeaser; a rich kid whose political career had been partly bought with family money; holder of a playboy reputation; and a Roman Catholic when that was still viewed as a disqualifying factor. Yet JFK, tapping into a yearning for new national energy, became the voice of a rising
generation when the political guard was changing.
Now, Bill Clinton may be "no Jack Kennedy" any more than Dan Quayle is. But Kennedy's success proves that politics is more than just bookkeeping, more than just tallying pluses and minuses. If a candidate, for whatever unquantifiable reason, electrifies voters, they will overlook defects that would doom other candidates. Clinton appears to have some of that spark.
Republican strategists are said to be rubbing their hands in anticipation of running against Clinton's "character flaws" this autumn. But they better think twice. A dirty campaign against Clinton could well backfire. George Bush needs to give the country positive reasons to vote for him; he shouldn't count on winning a second term by default.