The Illinois primary has left the Democratic race more confused than ever. Home-state Sen. Paul Simon won both the ``beauty contest'' and the most delegates, dashing the hopes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson - who took second - to win his first Northern industrial state.
The front-runner, Gov. Michael Dukakis, suffered a setback in Tuesday's voting. He finished a distant third and saw his delegate lead over Mr. Jackson shrink to just four.
For the Democrats, the continued lack of popular consensus on a standard bearer poses some problems. With no undisputed leader, and with ongoing bickering between the candidates, some Democratic activists worry that their eventual ticket will be weakened.
``Simon's favorite-son candidacy compounded the problem,'' says Murray Fishal, a political scientist at Kent State University. ``Had Dukakis been able to really muster substantial strength in Illinois, a kind of steam-roller effect would have occurred.''
Jackson moved quickly to discount his loss to Senator Simon, explaining yesterday that ``over the last 12 days I have run in 22 races, and he has focused on one state.''
``It seems to extend the choices,'' says Ann Lewis, a Democratic consultant and Jackson adviser, ``but I don't think that is going to last very long. ... Ultimately we are going to be down to three.''
Ms. Lewis is convinced that two of the three will be Mr. Jackson and Governor Dukakis. The burning question in Democratic circles in the next few weeks is who will be the third choice?
``The Dukakis inevitability argument took a bit of a hit,'' says Jim Margolis, a consultant who ran Walter Mondale's Illinois campaign in 1984. ``It's a little bit of a step backward for him.''
``There are a lot of questions yet unanswered in the minds of Democratic primary voters about the ultimate nominee,'' say Democratic pollster Alan Seacrest, ``and I don't think Dukakis is answering all those question yet.''
Most analysts agree, however, that Dukakis stands to do very well in coming contests because of his top-flight organization and well-stocked campaign coffers.