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Junior Tuesday

THE "Junior Tuesday" presidential contests this week began to winnow the field for Democrats, while Republicans sent another angry message to George Bush.

As in New Hampshire, the results continued to confound any conventional wisdom about the character of the race, and they indicate a still-inchoate yearning by voters for change.

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The most telling victory Tuesday was probably the solid win in Maryland by former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts - which, with wins also in Utah and the Washington caucuses, and a strong but disappointing showing in Colorado, establishes him as a national Democratic candidate.

The resounding victory in Georgia of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, his first, sets him up for a possible major vault next week in the seven Southern Super Tuesday states, his home turf.

Though it is still early, the Democratic race would seem to be shaping up as a duel between Messrs. Clinton and Tsongas. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown won by a hair in Colorado, but he continues to play the wild card, undercutting Tsongas as he did in Maine. Sen. Tom Harkin won Idaho but may not have the strength to make it to Illinois, his strong labor base. The campaign of Sen. Bob Kerrey, winless on Tuesday, appears permanently on the ropes.

On the Republican side, the New Hampshire surprise continues. Right-wing pugilist Pat Buchanan continues to deliver solid blows to the image of President Bush as an imperial incumbent. Who would have thought it? Mr. Buchanan's 37 percent in Georgia - the heart of Bush's Southern stronghold - and his 30 percent in border state Maryland has no doubt caused some fear and trembling in the White House. The Buchanan challenge seems more anti-Bush than pro-Pat. But the White House needs to get a grip, find a me ssage, and implement a coherent strategy. Who remembers the State of the Union?

Junior Tuesday was another blow to conventional Beltway wisdom. Pundits say Tsongas isn't "electable," has no "charisma while voters like the delicious irony of Tsongas's persona and continue to say otherwise. Clinton was supposed to be out of the race on character issues. Both appeal to mainstream voters with a "truth-telling" message - though Clinton captures more blacks and labor than Tsongas.

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