IT'S "must win" time for Bill Clinton, but new problems are dogging the Arkansas governor on the eve of tomorrow's New York presidential primary.
Unless Mr. Clinton carries the Empire State, his drive for the Democratic nomination "could begin to unravel," warns Bob Beckel, former campaign manager for Walter Mondale.
Although Clinton is favored, his prospects dimmed as new information surfaced about his draft record during the Vietnam War.
Clinton also is being attacked vigorously by his major rival, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who has been on a two-week winning streak in Connecticut, Vermont, and Alaska.
In addition, Mr. Brown threatens Clinton in tomorrow's Wisconsin primary, where liberal Democrats like the Californian usually find a warm welcome. Clinton's prospects look better in Kansas the same day, however.
Political insiders are trying to assess the potential damage to Clinton from new information about his draft record. It was revealed that in the spring of 1969, while he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, England, Clinton got his draft induction notice. Because the letter traveled by surface mail, he missed the deadline.
Shortly afterward, Clinton joined the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, which provided him with a deferment, even though he never enrolled in the university.
Previously, Clinton had acknowledged he joined ROTC to avoid being drafted, but had never revealed that he had already gotten his draft notice.
With all these problems, Governor Clinton, long the Democratic front-runner, might better be described as the "front-walker" as the campaign passes the midpoint. Although Clinton holds a huge lead over Brown in total delegates, he won't gain a majority unless he wins consistently in the remaining states.
THE greatest uncertainty in the Brown-Clinton race in New York revolves around turnout. Will Jewish voters, a third of the Democratic electorate, turn out heavily? If so, that would favor Clinton. Will black voters, 20 percent of the total, stay away without Jesse Jackson on the ballot? Will suburbanites cast ballots for former Sen. Paul Tsongas, even though he has suspended his campaign?
A staccato of criticism in the tabloid press in New York has left many voters with a sour feeling about both Brown and Clinton. Former Democratic chairman John White jokes that "John Gotti [the convicted Mafia crime boss] got a better press" than the Democrats.
Yet many Jewish voters are outraged that Brown has promised to select Mr. Jackson as his vice presidential running mate. Jackson is viewed by many Jews as anti-Semitic.
Clinton, too, has taken his lumps in New York. The most notable prior to the draft controversy came when he admitted smoking marijuana in the 1960s while studying abroad. Previously, Clinton had led reporters to believe he had never tried any illegal substance by saying he had never broken the drug laws of the United States.
Lee Miringoff, a pollster with the Marist Institute, says Clinton seemed ill-prepared for New York's gruff and uncompromising political environment, where candidates and reporters go at each other with elbows flying.
Evidence that many New Yorkers may simply decline to vote grew stronger with a poll taken in Erie County (Buffalo). It found 53 percent of the voters still undecided - the most ever this late in a New York primary. In a news report, poll-taker Gerald M. Goldhaber, a professor at the State University of Buffalo, explained: "What it says is that people can't stand either candidate. That's not too surprising, since all they've seen is one candidate attacking the other, and reporters attacking both."
Despite all this Democratic confusion, Republicans show little glee. Ed Rogers, a former political director for President Bush, says he worries that "a phoenix" could arise from the Democratic ashes and wage a powerful race against the White House.
In his usual style, Clinton and his campaign team dropped several political bombs on Brown just as the race in New York was ending. Clinton accused Brown of pandering to blacks by favoring Jackson for vice president, of endangering Social Security with his tax proposals, and of opposing abortion.
Brown denied the charges.