PAUL TSONGAS, his campaign stumbling and strapped for funds, quit the Democratic race yesterday, sharply boosting Bill Clinton's prospects for capturing his party's presidential nomination.
The decision by Mr. Tsongas was a shock. Members of his staff were denying rumors that he would quit less than an hour before a bulletin went out on news service wires announcing his decision.
Tsongas, who was the first Democrat to enter the race last spring, won the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, but has struggled ever since.
Arkansas Governor Clinton battered Tsongas on Super Tuesday in the South, the nation's largest region.
Tsongas hoped to turn the race around this week in Illinois and Michigan, which he called a "level playing field."
But Clinton thumped him hard by combining strong support from blacks, blue-collar ethnic voters, and a growing number of suburbanites.
What went wrong? Analysts say that Tsongas's message of economic renewal and hope carried him far, especially with well-educated voters.
However, something seemed to be missing, for he was never able to create sparks with lower-income and minority voters, the core of the Democratic Party.
Explaining the decision, Tsongas press director Peggy Connolly said: "It came down to not being able to raise enough money to be competitive. He feels that he has changed the agenda of the Democratic Party, and he leaves with his head high."
A day earlier, Dennis Kanin, the Tsongas campaign manager, was drafting plans to "jump start" the campaign in next Tuesday's Connecticut primary, where Tsongas would have been the favorite.
Mr. Kanin was pointing out that despite a string of losses to Clinton, Tsongas had won nearly as many states, with victories in Washington, Maryland, Rhode Island, Utah, and elsewhere.
However, just after Connecticut loomed New York - a state where extremely expensive media buys are considered essential to a winning campaign. The road simply looked too steep.
Tsongas explained his losses by saying that Clinton, using negative TV advertising in the South, had forced him away from his basic economic message. Instead of talking about renewing America's manufacturing base, Tsongas spent time defending himself from what he called distortions of his policies.
Analysts had expected Tsongas to keep fighting for at least two reasons:
First, the former senator insisted to reporters that Clinton was unelectable, a wounded candidate who would be chopped up by Republicans in November.
Second, the possibility remains that Clinton himself could eventually be forced out of the race by what another candidate, former Gov. Jerry Brown, calls a "scandal a week" involving Clinton.
Although money was given as the excuse for quitting the race, a Tsongas aide had reported early yesterday morning that money was still pouring into the campaign at a near-record clip.
In fact, columnist Mary McGrory reported in yesterday's Washington Post that Tsongas was still collecting $93,000 a day from contributors - enough to pay for his campaign effort at least as far as the New York primary scheduled for April 7.
Tsongas's exit sets up an intriguing showdown between the two remaining candidates, Clinton and Brown.
Mr. Brown, playing the spoiler role, has sharply stepped up his attacks on Clinton during the past few days. After pulling his punches in earlier primaries, Brown now seems ready to hit Clinton head-on, criticizing his wife Hillary's connections to a law firm that does business with Clinton's state government, for example.
Voter exit polls indicate that Brown may be able to pick up a significant portion of Tsongas's vote. Like Tsongas, he also attracts well-educated, well-heeled voters.
But Brown also has tapped into voter anger among blue-collar Democrats upset about America's loss of jobs to other nations. He has distinguished himself sharply from Clinton among those voters by coming out strongly against President Bush's proposed North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico. Clinton favors NAFTA.
Further, Brown has garnered significant support from the powerful liberal wing of the Democratic Party by tapping into environmental issues like nuclear power.
Brown would close down every remaining nuclear power plant in the US within 10 years. Clinton wants to keep them running.
Prior to Tsongas's departure, Brown was focusing on the Wisconsin primary, April 7, as his next big confrontation with Clinton.
Now he is expected to step up his grassroots efforts in Connecticut and New York.
As for Tsongas, he didn't seem to have the organization to capitalize on his early victories.