DESPITE serious questions about his character, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas is moving ever closer to winning the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.
A number of seasoned analysts say Mr. Clinton has accumulated enough delegates - 58 percent of the total needed - and enough momentum to put him out of reach for his two principal rivals, Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas.
"I don't see how they can possibly stop Clinton" after his victories in New York, Wisconsin, and Kansas on Tuesday, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Mr. Brown, who offered himself as a populist alternative to Clinton in this week's rough-and-tumble New York primary, stumbled badly and finished third.
Mr. Tsongas, who ran second in New York without campaigning, heard thousands of voters urging him to reenter the race.
Yet Tsongas still did very poorly with minority and union voters, who are critical elements of every winning Democratic coalition.
The campaign is now more than halfway to the finish line, but many Democrats aren't cheering for any of the runners.
Though Clinton remains popular with Democratic Party in- siders, such as chairman Ron Brown, a large number of Americans clearly are restless and dissatisfied with this year's choices.
In New York, two-thirds of Democrats said they wished someone else were running. Turnout was very low, with only about one-fourth of eligible voters casting ballots. If there was any consolation for Democrats, it was that in the GOP primaries, Republican voters said they were nearly as unhappy with the choice among George Bush, Patrick Buchanan, and David Duke.
As the Democratic campaign points toward the next big showdown in Pennsylvania at the end of April, analysts say the political picture is growing clearer:
r Brown cannot beat Clinton, so he will be a smaller factor in most of the contests that lie ahead, with the exception of his critical home state, California.
r Tsongas is back as a significant player, a favorite of middle-class, suburban, well-educated white voters. But in reality he cannot beat Clinton either because of his weakness with minority and union voters. Tsongas will decide today or tomorrow whether to reenter the race.
r Clinton has endured extraordinary attacks on his personal character. Political scientist Sam Popkin calls Clinton's New York victory "major-league survival." But there is no evidence so far that Clinton can overcome deep-seated doubts about his honesty among white, middle-class voters, who are essential to victory in November.
Speaking of these voters, Dr. Popkin, who teaches at the University of California (San Diego), says: "You can't win an election if you can't convince white-collar people that you are clean enough to govern."
Dr. Sabato says that, with Clinton and Tsongas each running strongly with different elements of the Democratic Party, logic suggests that together they would make a strong ticket. He explains: "Tsongas can't beat Clinton, or even stop him from getting the nomination. But [in the remaining weeks], he could prove that his drawing power is still substantial, and he's drawing from segments that Clinton can't win otherwise. So he can't win the nomination ... but he can win the vice presidential spot."
Tsongas has rejected such suggestions, but Sabato discounts that. "People say lots of things on the campaign trail," he says. "Remember, Bush said he wouldn't take it from Ronald Reagan, either [in 1980]." Mr. Bush, of course, served as Mr. Reagan's vice president for eight years.
Exit polls in New York provide interesting insights on the dynamics of this week's voting.
Brown had vowed to New York voters that, if nominated, he would pick the Rev. Jesse Jackson as his running mate.
Among black voters, the tactic worked. Brown got a much-better-than-usual 39 percent of the black vote in New York, compared with 52 percent for Clinton.
Tsongas, weak with minorities as usual, got only 8 percent.
Among Jewish voters, Brown's affinity for Jackson hurt. Jews comprise from 25 to 33 percent of New York Democratic primary voters, slightly more than blacks.
Brown had done well among Jewish voters elsewhere, but in New York he skidded to just 9 percent. Clinton got 55 percent, Tsongas 34 percent.
Some segments of the New York vote split almost evenly. White Roman Catholics, for example, divided 35 percent for Tsongas, 32 percent for Clinton, and 31 percent for Brown.
Labor union household voters divided 38 percent for Clinton, 32 percent for Brown, and 27 percent for Tsongas.
Brown's flat-tax idea was a loser with voters. Some 48 percent thought it was less fair than the current system. Only 20 percent thought it was an improvement.