Sounding discouraged and embittered, Bill Clinton on Monday challenged Democratic presidential rival Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. to a series of debates in an attempt to force new scrutiny of the unexpectedly strong insurgent.
But the Arkansas governor conceded that time is running short in what now appears an uphill effort in New York, which holds its primary a week from today.
A jubilant Brown called the offer "a major breakthrough" but did not immediately accept it.
The challenge came 10 days after Clinton rejected Brown's offer to debate him at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, saying: "We've got lots of debates; we have more than enough debates." But since then, Brown has won the Connecticut primary, New York tabloids have zeroed in on Clinton, and a new statewide poll has shown that a majority of New York voters still harbor deep misgivings about Clinton and his character.
His campaign said he now hopes to battle his rival face to face six times in the next seven days. "We think it is important that Jerry Brown be treated as a serious presidential candidate," deputy campaign manager George Stephanopolous said. "The more people know about Jerry Brown, the less they like him."
Being treated seriously was just what Brown wanted. "This is a major breakthrough," he said. "Clinton has challenged me to debate. I would say we're on our way."
When asked if the Apollo debate would be among those scheduled, a cocky Brown said: "Clinton wants to come in by satellite. But I think that's a moonbeam trick. I want him there personally." (There will, in fact, be a face-to-face debate at the Apollo.)
The "moonbeam" reference was a play on Brown's own derogatory nickname, "Gov. Moonbeam." The former California governor has been having fun with that appellation. Just the other day in Vermont, which holds caucuses today, Brown urged his supporters to pave the way for New York.
"New York, if you're watching, the people of Vermont want to send you a message," Brown said to thundering cheers at a Burlington rally. "I may not say read my lips, but I will say one moonbeam is worth a thousand points of light."
The Clinton camp wasn't nearly so relaxed. Uneasy aides conceded that the latest New York poll spelled political trouble; as a rejoinder, their candidate sought to highlight what he calls Brown's reinvention of himself. During a brief trip to Wisconsin to campaign for its April 7 primary, Clinton sought out reporters to proclaim: "I have been far more consistent and honest with the American people than Jerry Brown has."
He accused Brown of having "recreated himself every year or so" and seized on reports that Brown had used an adviser's fiction manuscript as the basis for his campaign kickoff speech. The Clinton campaign had leaked Patrick Caddell's manuscript to the media. Brown, Clinton said, needed "somebody to tell him what he believed in."
Brown was undaunted, saying that Caddell was "about as responsible as my father" for the thrust of his campaign. Brown's father is former California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. Thousands of people have influenced him, he said. "This is a campaign of 'we the people.'
And, borrowing a page from Clinton's playbook, Brown stood across the street from the New York Stock Exchange and branded Clinton as "the toast of Wall Street." Brown noted that Clinton had castigated former candidate Paul E. Tsongas for saying he would be "the best friend Wall Street ever had" in the White House.
"I'm running against an opponent who said that Paul Tsongas was the candidate of Wall Street," Brown said. "But here we have a Business Week article that says Bill Clinton is the toast of Wall Street.
"They're raising hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars, for his candidacy. In the coming weeks, when he tries to say my proposals and my tax plan are for the few, I want the record to show that his campaign is about the few raising money to manipulate the majority."
Brown urged New Yorkers to support his insurgent campaign, which is financed by contributions of $100 or less collected via an 800 number. Then, in an allusion to Jesus Christ, Brown said: "This is a campaign of resurgence, a campaign to drive the money lenders out of the temples of power."
Clinton's decision to mount a highly personal assault on his rival marked a signal of distress from a campaign so far unable to gain New York voters' trust.
Although the candidate said he hoped he could overcome that mistrust before next Tuesday's crucial primary in the state, his tone and manner made clear that he has doubts.
"There's a limit to how much time I have," he told reporters outside a technical college in Milwaukee on a brief sojourn away from the hostility of New York. "The sand runs out of the hourglass in eight days."
A WABC-TV poll released Monday showed that only one in three New York voters held a favorable opinion of Clinton. Even among likely Democratic voters, one in two across the state said he lacked the honesty and integrity to be President.
With his roller-coaster campaign once again seeming to have taken a downward turn, the Arkansas governor blamed his poor reception in New York on the city's media, saying he has been "trashed" in "the tabloid capital of the universe."
Clinton expressed confidence that his campaign would regain momentum once "the people get back to the real issues." But glum aides said they believed Brown would win if the New York primary were held today, and said Clinton could overtake him only through attacks.
"There are a lot of people here who don't like Bill Clinton," one senior official said. "We need to find a way to make sure that a lot of people don't like Jerry Brown either."
Since arriving in New York, Clinton has found his attempts to sound campaign themes overshadowed every day by distractions that have dominated newspaper headlines and local television coverage.
After he acknowledged during a debate with Brown on Sunday that he had used marijuana while a student in England, for example, news coverage was dominated by questions about his candor in having fended off a drug-use question only three days earlier by saying he had broken no U.S. laws.
"WEED ASKED HIM THAT!" shouted the front page of the New York Daily News, while the rival New York Post, which has made Clinton the target of a week of nasty attacks, proclaimed: "CLINTON ON THE S-POT."
The last public opinion polls gauging the head-to-head race showed Clinton with a substantial lead over Brown. But those polls are now more than a week old, and Clinton aides say privately that their own evidence now suggests Brown has more than closed the gap.
The new WABC-TV poll did not ask voters to choose between the two Democratic candidates. But it found that only 29% of New York voters agreed that Clinton had the "honesty and integrity" to be President, while 57% said he did not.
By contrast, Brown was regarded as worthy by 47% of the state's voters, with only 33% raising doubts about his character.
Clinton campaign officials have sought privately to hammer away at such support by calling reporters' attention to the way in which Brown's positions on major issues have undergone radical transformations in recent years.