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Clinton's Road Ahead

PAUL TSONGAS'S departure from the Democratic primaries appears to set the field for autumn: A long race for the White House between Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and President George Bush.

Democrats worried about Mr. Clinton's electability hoped for a brokered convention. But with Mr. Tsongas out, and with Jerry Brown's insurgent candidacy garnering few delegates, Clinton seems set to sweep.

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What Democratic national chairman Ron Brown wants is a candidate who will early bring the party together, define a message, and take the fight to the Republicans. Clinton's impressive Super Tuesday victories and his decisive wins in the Illinois and Michigan heartlands give him credentials.

Unlike Tsongas, Clinton had a fine-tuned political organization. It had depth and had won the support of many state and local party leaders (Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's machine was on board). Clinton formed a coalition of labor, minority, and middle-class voters - and also attracted pro-growth upper-middle-class voters. On paper this is a tough coalition; how strong it will prove outside the hothouse of Democratic primaries is unclear.

Tsongas brought to the race a significant message of economic truth: America must become competitive again, and must take responsibility for its destiny - not blame others. He almost single-handedly forced the Democrats out of a politics of redistribution and into a politics of growth. Clinton has shown he can absorb and recast that message broadly.

Over the next seven months, Americans will witness a long fight over their future. That's what the process is for. Clinton will force Bush to define himself beyond the status quo image of late. Bush will force Clinton to prove himself "presidential" - capable of handling something Democrats have said little about: foreign policy.

Clinton will also be forced to stop playing regional politics, where he has been everything to everybody, and define the specifics of his own platform.

It is sad to see Tsongas go; he brought dignity, civility, humor, and realism to the presidential race. Is there a small chance this will rub off in the general election?

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