BILL CLINTON'S political bandwagon just broke a wheel. The Arkansas governor, far ahead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, was jolted by Connecticut voters, who told him they wanted someone else.
Jerry Brown's narrow, one-point victory in Connecticut sharply increases the stakes on April 7 in New York, where another loss by Governor Clinton could stagger his campaign.
"This was not so much a vote for Brown. Rather, people were registering something against Governor Clinton," says G. Donald Ferree, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut.
Analysts warn that Mr. Brown's win should not be exaggerated. Connecticut is a relatively small state with a contrarian tradition of voting for Democratic presidential candidates who eventually lose.
Even so, the vote indicates that Clinton is being damaged by a constant barrage of criticism in the press and from Brown. The negative revelations - charges of marital infidelity, avoiding the draft, questionable land deals - are beginning to add up, says pollster Mervin Field.
Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, says the Connecticut loss raises serious questions about whether Clinton can ultimately overcome public doubts about his character.
Exit surveys taken in Connecticut painted a stark picture of Clinton's problems. When Democratic voters were asked whether Clinton had the honesty and integrity to serve as president, 49 percent said yes; but nearly half, 46 percent, said no.
Mr. Ferree says Clinton remains the front-runner in the Democratic race, but with large numbers questioning his integrity, the outlook for the general election campaign against President Bush is dimmed.
"The person taking the most encouragement from the results in Connecticut should be President Bush," Ferree says.
Looking ahead to New York's huge primary in 12 days, analysts say there is good and bad news for Clinton. On the positive side, the electorate in New York resembles Illinois (where Clinton won big) much more than Connecticut. Lee Miringoff, a political scientist with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says: "All things being equal, this state should be more friendly terrain for Clinton in terms of putting together Jewish, Hispanic, black, and union voters." On the down side, h owever, exit surveys indicate that Brown recently has made great strides with at least two of those Clinton strongholds - Jews and union voters. In Connecticut, the former California governor actually carried the Jewish vote by a narrow margin, 37 percent to 34 percent, over Clinton. With a heavy Jewish vote expected in New York, that has sent up warning flags in the Clinton camp.
Mr. Field, who has followed presidential races for decades from his vantage point in San Francisco, offers this assessment of the presidential race to date:
"The public is most unhappy with George Bush. If you had a plebiscite on Bush, up or down, he would lose 2 to 1. But that is not how we elect a president, so we turn to the Democrats.
"The promise of Clinton was exciting to the public for awhile, but the negative revelations and scandalizing are having an effect on the public....
"So now, the country is in a terrible dilemma. They don't like Bush, but he could still win," Field says.
Mr. Ali concurs, calling this "a crazy year." He points out that the key voter group could be so-called "Reagan Democrats," who crossed party lines to support Ronald Reagan and George Bush in 1980, 1984, and 1988.
Clinton must win these folks over, Ali says, but they are shaken by the character question: "The Reagan Democrats say that, even though they don't like Bush, Clinton is not much better. They see Clinton as a charlatan."
Following the Connecticut vote, Clinton immediately went on the attack. He charged that Brown's proposal for a 13 percent flat tax on income, plus 13 percent on business, would boost taxes on the poor and middle-class while slashing levies on the rich.
Those arguments didn't go far with Connecticut voters, but might play better in New York. However, Ali says Clinton would be much better off ignoring Brown and sticking to his economic message. Brown hopes the three factors that helped him in Connecticut will carry into the Empire State.
First, he is picking up the "ABC vote" (Anybody But Clinton). Former supporters of Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, for example, went to Brown over Clinton by a 3-to-2 margin in Connecticut.
Second, Brown's economic message, including his demand that the United States stop exporting jobs to Mexico, struck a favorable chord.
Third, Brown's strategy of accepting no donations above $100 has given him the high road on the corruption issue now troubling Washington. Connecticut voters worried about political corruption favored Brown over Clinton by 56 percent to 16 percent.
Ironically, exit polls indicated that if former Senator Tsongas had remained in the race, he would have carried the Connecticut primary handily. Even after suspending his campaign, Tsongas got 20 percent of the vote, compared with 37 percent for Brown and 36 percent for Clinton.
On the Republican side, Mr. Bush handily whipped Patrick Buchanan, who has recently scaled back his insurgent campaign.