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Wednesday, March 4, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On the most important day yet in the 1992 presidential campaign, Washington Democrats sent their message, casting a majority of their caucus votes for the two candidates most committed to changing the party.

Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, a walking reproach to the Democratic Party, held an early lead with 32 percent of the delegates in the party's statewide sample of about a quarter of Democratic caucuses. Uncommitted voters claimed 20 percent of the delegates, followed closely by insurgent contender, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, with 19 percent of the sampled delegates.

In votes committed to candidates, Clinton was in third place, with 14 percent of the sampled precinct delegates.

"I'm tired of slick candidates, I'm tired of a party that can't win the White House. I want change now," said Jan Gallagher, 42, a Tsongas supporter who attended a caucus in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood.

"And Tsongas is willing to admit America is living beyond its means," said Todd Anderson, 30, who also attended a Greenwood-area caucus. "The country needs that kind of blunt truth-telling."

Last week in Seattle, both Tsongas and Brown promised to shake up the party with strict fiscal reforms and to boot George Bush out of the White House - the two things Washington state Democrats apparently want to hear.

Before a crush of 2,000 people at Westlake Park last Thursday, Tsongas criticized incumbent Democrats for treating the federal treasury like "a gigantic ATM machine" and rejected a middle-class tax cut as "pandering to voters."

And Brown condemned the federal tax code during a rally at the University of Washington. Pledging to scrap the current tiered tax system, the anti-establishment candidate said he would institute a 13 percent flat-rate income tax.

"There was a lot of discussion about issues, but in general people were really serious about needing major change," said Jim Bertolino, precinct chairman for Guemes Island near Anacortes.

On the island, a community of telecommuters, yuppie drop-outs from jobs, young families and retirees, it was a three-way squeeze, with Brown, Tsongas and undecided voters evenly split.

"I was frankly surprised how much support Brown got, but he seemed to be the candidate of `change,' " Bertolino said.

In the 21st Legislative District in Southwest Snohomish County, Tsongas got 33 percent of the delegates and Brown 24 percent. But 19 percent of the delegates were uncommitted.

That was no surprise to Morris Malakov, 21st District chairman. "People are frustrated," Malakov said. "They are committed to change but not to a candidate."

UNCOMMITTED WINS BIG

While the Democratic presidential candidates may have found reasons for optimism in other parts of the state, in Everett the party faithful made it clear it's way too early to be committing to a single candidate.

At the Everett Public Library, where 15 precincts in the 38th Legislative District met briefly before being unceremoniously booted out at closing time, "uncommitted" was the big winner. Of the 38 delegates who will attend the April 18 county convention, 17 won't be tied to a specific candidate.

"I want someone I can count on who's electable," said Everett Port Commissioner Ed Morrow. "I don't know enough about any of them at this stage to give anyone that vote of confidence. Electability is my major concern."

With virtually no campaign organization in Washington, Brown did not seem to have much of a following until two weeks ago. But after his surprise upset in Maine, where he exceeded expectations by placing a close second to Tsongas, supporters literally began banging down the doors.

STATE VISITS HELP TSONGAS

The Tsongas campaign, however, had been banking on winning Washington.

"We expected to do well here - we knew support was widespread across the state," said state campaign director Bill Dunbar. "We didn't have a lot of staff, we didn't get the doors open early, but we invested in a lot of one-to-one campaigning."

In the days before yesterday's caucuses, Washington state and East Coast Tsongas campaigners made upward of 40,000 calls to likely supporters, Dunbar said. Those calls were backed with a blitz of direct mail and last-minute prime-time television commercials.

Perhaps even more important, Tsongas visited the state more times than other candidates.

"Sen. Tsongas has been here many times. This has been a key state for him, " said Karen Marchioro, Washington State Democratic chairwoman. "He has a message a lot of people here are tuned in to - his economic austerity and his anti-protectionism."

Clinton had begun calling himself the "Comeback Kid," but his failure to win in Washington, or any other Western state, cast doubts on his campaign. Although Clinton has captured more delegates nationwide than any other candidate, he has not done as well as expected, which could hamper fund-raising efforts.

But Dan Sheeran, spokesman for Clinton's Washington campaign, downplayed his candidate's poor showing.

"This is not a make-or-break state for Clinton," he said.

Both Tsongas and Brown had ardent supporters among about 150 Democrats at caucuses in the 43rd District, which includes Capitol Hill.

Tim Savage, editor of the 43rd District newsletter, said he was surprised by Tsongas' strong support.

"His agenda jives with the agenda of the progressive young Democrats of Washington state," said Savage, who has not decided whom he will support for president. "Tsongas is saying all the right things. But you have to be cynical. Is it all campaign rhetoric? Are we seeing a rewrite of `read my lips'?"

Citing the candidate's pledge to limit campaign contributions, Henry Ladd Smith, a professor emeritus at the UW, pitched his support for Brown at those caucuses. The nation, he said, is being "led by a bunch of pussy-footers," adding "Jerry Brown may be a kook, but we need a kook."

Sen. Brock Adams' decision this weekend to withdraw from the Senate race after eight women accused him of sexual harassment and abuse also played a part in last night's caucuses. In Seattle's heavily Democratic 32nd and 37th districts, voters circulated petitions demanding Adams' resignation.

HARKIN, KERREY TRAILING

A number of people attending last night's caucuses decided to switch their votes from Clinton to Tsongas or Brown, citing the "electability factor."

Even more hobbled by the "electability" question were Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Harkin received 7 percent and Kerrey 6 percent.

Despite endorsements from organized labor and aggressive phone-campaigning, Harkin was unable to get out the vote. In the blue-collar heart of the traditionally Democratic 11th, which encompasses Renton, union-favorite Harkin came in a distant third, with 44 delegates to Tsongas' 100 and Brown's 48.

Despite a reportedly large staff and budget, the Kerrey campaign was barely visible. In recent days, some Kerrey supporters say, money was hard to come by. According to the King County Democratic Committee, Kerrey's was the only campaign that did not purchase the coveted lists of voters and likely caucus participants.

Larry Agran, the darkest of Democratic dark horses, garnered just 1 percent of last night's vote.

And if there had been a vote on the caucus system itself, it may have scored even fewer points than Agran.

"I'm all for a primary. This is ridiculous - only a handful of people show up," said Mary Dolleman, an active Democrat for 45 years.

In Kenmore, only three voters showed up for a precinct caucus. One woman was so disgusted she wanted to quit, but in the end the group decided to elect two Clinton delegates. Once that was done, the threesome unanimously passed a resolution expressing their disgust with the state Democratic Party for its decision to ignore the state's first presidential primary, scheduled for May 19.

Because of a dispute over rules, the state Democratic Party refused to participate in the primary, saying the national party might not recognize Washington delegates chosen by that method.

State Democratic leaders estimated roughly 35,000 people attended caucuses in King County last night, and another 40,000 people statewide.

In Federal Way, one precinct split its delegates evenly for Brown and Tsongas.

The Brown contingent was Sue Johannsen, a part-time X-ray technician. The rest of the precinct's delegates consisted of Bob Johannsen, her husband, a Weyerhaeuser purchasing manager.

In the 36th district, in the Queen Anne and Magnolia areas, several voters summed up the sentiment of many Democrats across the state and the country.

"I think we all feel if Clinton doesn't make it and Tsongas does, that's fine. Or if Brown does, that's fine, too," said precinct chairwoman Donna McArthur. "We're not anti-anybody," she added.

"Except George Bush," said Jim Koolick.

-- Times staff reporters Geordie Wilson, Robert T. Nelson, Carol Ostrom, Mark Matassa, Jerry Bergsman, Susan Gilmore, Dick Lilly and John Stevens contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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