Paul Tsongas' prospects of appearing on the New York state primary ballot in April were thrown into considerable doubt Tuesday by a legal challenge to his petitions to enter the contest.
The challenge was filed by representatives of the New Alliance Party, a fringe political group. But in a strong indication of the tensions between camps of the first- and second-place finishers in New Hampshire on Tuesday, the head of Tsongas' New York campaign charged that the group had acted under the "direction and orchestration" of aides to Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Regardless of who was masterminding the effort, several experts agreed that under New York's notoriously technical election laws, Tsongas had a minimum of signatures and might be unable to withstand the legal challenges to them.
If he is knocked from the ballot, he would be cut off from the 268 Democratic delegates at stake in the primary, the largest block of any state except California.
The dogfight over who gets to be on the ballot precedes the dogfight over who wins the primary, and in this first battle Gov. Mario Cuomo, an announced noncandidate, already has been drawn into the fray.
His handpicked state Democratic chairman, John Marino, sought last week to get all the major Democratic candidates to agree to a "nonaggression pact" in which they would not challenge any of the other's petitions for the primary.
But such an accord was largely rendered meaningless on Tuesday by the New Alliance Party's challenge, because under the New York laws anybody can challenge the validity of petition signatures.
If the signatures do not conform precisely to the law, the State Board of Elections is required to invalidate them even if they came from duly registered voters.
For example, petitions can be rejected if the witness who collected them does not live in the same congressional district, or if the petition pages are misnumbered or contain small errors in addition.
The Tsongas campaign filed by far the fewest number of signatures of any of the five major Democratic candidates, and just 3,952 more than the 10,000 required to be on the ballot. Because of all the technicalities in the law, many election lawyers say candidates should gather at least twice the minimum number of signatures needed to be assured of surviving challenges.
Clinton, by contrast, filed 48,281 signatures; Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, 38,803; Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, 20,685; and former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. of California, 19,413.