BILL CLINTON'S rapid drive toward the Democratic presidential nomination has only one obstacle left in its path: the low-budget campaign of Jerry Brown.
While Mr. Brown remains a long shot, he still poses a danger to Governor Clinton during the next 10 weeks as the primaries race toward the grand finale in California, analysts say.
Democratic political consultant Keith Frederick says that, in the battle for delegates, the race is "largely over" and Clinton has won. Yet Brown refuses to quietly fade away. He hammers Clinton relentlessly and personally, picking up grass-roots support among a growing number of angry, alienated voters.
Clinton, seeing victory near, is trying to turn his fire at President Bush, but he acknowledges that Brown could cause trouble. He explained to an interviewer on television over the weekend: "He's got nothing to lose. He'll say anything ... Jerry Brown wouldn't mind reelecting George Bush." Playing the gadfly, Brown could make it harder for the Arkansas governor to achieve three essential goals prior to the Democratic National Convention in July.
First, Clinton must reduce anxiety about his integrity and character. Charges of extramarital affairs, draft avoidance, and a questionable land deal are extremely troublesome to some voters.
Second, Clinton must use the remaining primaries to consolidate and deepen his support with the party faithful, many of whom are unfamiliar with him.
Third, Clinton must get time to focus on the campaign against Mr. Bush this fall when he will need to attract a broad coalition, including millions of independent voters that he needs for victory. (Bush takes aim at Democrats in Congress, Page 8.)
Brown could become the "spoiler" of the 1992 campaign by keeping the Arkansas governor off-balance. With major primaries coming up tomorrow in Connecticut and April 7 in New York and Wisconsin, analyst Horace Busby says:
"It gives Brown, who's got the best mind in the campaign ... a chance to cause some trouble and embarrassment" for Clinton.
Several analysts say the Clinton-Brown battle of 1992 reminds them of the 1976 race between Jimmy Carter (another Southerner) and Brown, who also ran that year. Even though Mr. Carter had the nomination sewed up, Brown kept banging away, winning more and more primaries as the contest moved westward.
Fast-forward that picture to June 1992 and "Clinton might have a bad day on June 2" in the nation's biggest primary in California, says G. Donald Ferree, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. Losing California, and perhaps other Western states like Oregon, could mean that Clinton comes into the national convention in July "not looking like the consensus candidate," Mr. Ferree says. "That would have a very negative impact."
How much trouble could Brown cause? On that point there is disagreement.
Thomas Mann, a senior political analyst with the Brookings Institution, says: "The good piece of news for Clinton is that he does not have to enter another debate, which [would] provide Brown the opportunity to launch these attacks. Brown continues to be seen as a 'flake' within the political community, so his hand grenades will not reverberate."
Mr. Frederick, however, cautions that Clinton cannot simply ignore Brown, or refuse to debate him, without taking considerable risk.
"If Clinton gets to the point of arrogance [by not debating], people would exercise a protest vote," Frederick warns. "And, as we've seen this year [in Patrick Buchanan's campaign], 35 percent can be seen as a significant victory for a protest vote."
John Marino, chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, says of Brown: "I think he'll do better in New York than most people think right now.... If he decides to spend some time here, take advantage of free media, he will do well here."
Despite Brown's readiness to launch personal attacks against Clinton, Mr. Mann suggests that Clinton's image will begin to mend. As he puts it:
"Sex, war, and money: What more is there to talk about? He said he had affairs - not explicitly, but as implicitly as any public figure has done in this country.... He is constantly saying now that, 'I come here not as a saint, but a sinner.' "
The only way Clinton could be hurt further, Mann says, is if it became clear that he "has lied to us. So my view is, there will be no more revelations."
He suggests that Brown, the press, and the political community in Washington may be judging Clinton too harshly. As the primaries have shown: "The country likes Clinton more than the elites do."
Mr. Busby, a longtime Democrat, is less sanguine. He calls the Clinton-Brown contest a "predicament" for the party. As the race goes west, where Brown has more popularity, "they could get into a spitting match," he says.