THE New York Democratic presidential primary is almost always grand political theater with the major candidates usually engaged in a bare- knuckles street brawl right down to the final vote.
This year is no exception.
But what's new is that the Empire State's Democratic contest is shaping up as a potential turning- point for the 1992 primary campaign: With less than a week before next Tuesday's election, voters are angry and restless, the outcome increasingly up for grabs.
Up until a few weeks ago the assumption was that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had the primary locked up. Scores of statewide Democratic officeholders have endorsed him. Wall Street has taken a liking to the former Rhodes scholar.
But Gov. Clinton's front-runner status started to unravel when former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas withdrew from the race. Mr. Tsongas would have split the anti-Clinton vote with former California Gov. Jerry Brown leaving Clinton well out front.
Now, momentum is moving from Clinton toward Mr. Brown, whose anti-establishment message fits well with New Yorkers, who are born iconoclasts and rebels. Brown's win in Vermont Tuesday night, on the heels of his Connecticut win the week before, make next week's contests even more important for Clinton. The voting in the Vermont caucuses was a runaway, with Brown getting 46 percent to Clinton's 17 percent.
Moreover, the tone of the New York campaign - slashing and accusatory - has been set by New York City's feisty media tabloids, which have focused on "character issues" such as Clinton's admitted smoking of marijuana when he was a college student two decades ago, his draft status, his playing golf at a white-members-only golf course, and allegations of extramarital affairs.
Polls show New York voters to be deeply troubled by Clinton. A survey of 700 statewide voters taken by WABC-TV found that 57 percent of the respondents said that Clinton didn't have the "honesty and integrity" to be president. Some 51 percent of the Democrats agreed. And the figure was higher among Democrats from New York City. Clinton, on the defensive and worried, has agreed to a marathon string of six debates with Brown.
A Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll released yesterday found Clinton the favorite of 37 percent of likely New York Democratic presidential primary voters, while Brown is the choice of 26 percent. More than 25 percent of those surveyed were undecided. Big voter turnout sought
Clinton needs a big turnout to ensure victory. New York State has 3.7 million registered Democrats, almost half the total electorate. But "turnout this year is expected to be off by up to 5 percent," says Dr. Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute, which conducts frequent polls here. "Voters are getting a lot of negative reasons not to vote. The situation is very fluid. There's going to be a big 'stay at home' factor."
Clinton's strength is among more conservative upstate Democrats, as well as blacks in New York City and union workers and middle-class voters.
Brown is expected to draw more outlying suburban voters on Long Island and liberals in Manhattan, while also doing well among blacks. He has the endorsement of the 117,000 member hospital-workers union.
The unknown factor involves Jewish voters, who constitute close to 30 percent of the Democratic Party's primary voters. Little wonder, political analysts note with some amusement, that Clinton promised a group of Jewish organizations in Brooklyn recently that if elected, he would keep a "kosher kitchen" in the White House. Anti-establishment vote
Moreover, a lot of voters, upstate as well as downstate, "are just not willing to have a decision foisted on them by national party leaders," says Laurie Rhodebeck, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "A lot of voters are saying that they plan to vote for Brown to send a message to party leaders" that they are tired of the status quo.
Jim Armenakis, who headed up the New York campaign for Tsongas, reckons that the shift to Brown is becoming so substantial that the Californian "will win by 40 percent."
Mr. Armenakis believes that Tsongas, whose name remains on the ballot here, will still win at least 15 percent of the vote. New York is home to over 800,000 Greek-Americans.
"It's become a vicious campaign," says former New York Mayor Ed Koch. Mr. Koch also sees a movement to Brown, although he believes that Clinton will fight back and manage to pull out a victory.
Anything less than a convincing victory by Clinton could bode badly for the Southerner when Democrats hold their national convention in the Big Apple. One beneficiary of a Clinton loss: New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo, who would be a favorite at a brokered convention.