Tsongas' 1992 presidential campaign missing just one thing--an opponent


CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Rolling across Iowa in "Van Force One," Paul E. Tsongas has all the trappings of a presidential candidate: an advance person, a press secretary, reporters who question him at each stop.

But something is wrong with this picture. What is it?

The rest of the campaign is missing, that's what.

Mr. Tsongas has a towel with the presidential seal on it in the van, but he doesn't have an opponent.

"I'm the world's supply of Democratic candidates for president," he jokes. He also says, "I'm getting lonely. I need some company."

From the hog farms of Iowa to the coffee shops of New Hampshire to the ritzy residences of the nation's capital, the 50-year-old candidate is on an audacious mission. He's trying to prove that someone who dropped out of the political rat race seven years ago can come back and win the nation's highest office on the strength of an 85-page position paper.

His candidacy, he says, tests the notion that "ideas have legs." By design, his approach is 180 degrees removed from the slick imagery of the 1988 campaign, which, he says, left many voters with a sour aftertaste.

"There's a real yearning to have a discussion and talk about what's happening in this country," he insists. "People want to have more substance than before."

As he travels the country, he's retailing a message of pro-business liberalism. Though he styles himself as an "economic Paul Revere," his method owes more to Johnny Appleseed.

Interviewed "Live at Five" on a Cedar Rapids TV station, he plugs his paper and invites viewers to call for a copy. At a truck stop on Interstate 80, he hands one to a Wisconsin businessman, even though the man has just told him that "you Democrats will never have a chance until you disavow your fringy groups -- like lesbians and homosexuals."

He's exhausted the initial supply of 45,000 copies and had 25,000 more printed. Many have been sent to "opinion leaders" in government and the news media. "If they're not talking about that paper, I'm in trouble," he says.

Being the one and only candidate has its advantages. When a Times Mirror poll asked Americans recently if they could recall any Democrats who had been mentioned as presidential contenders, the number who named Mr. Tsongas was second only to those who recalled the name Mario Cuomo.

Never mind that only 7 percent mentioned Mr. Tsongas or that three out of four people couldn't come up with any names at all.

"Never in my wildest dreams," Mr. Tsongas says, did he expect to have the presidential field to himself for so long.

But the burst of press attention that followed his announcement in April has faded. "The amount of oxygen available to the lone presidential candidate gets used up pretty quickly," says Peggy Connolly, his press secretary.

Along with his traveling press corps of one, Mr. Tsongas is slouched in the rear seat of his speeding van, the sprouting croplands of Iowa a green blur through the side window. Dispassionately, the candidate analyzes the failure of any rivals to jump into the race.

"I don't think any of them take me very seriously," he says without rancor. "So I can be out here on my own, and I'm nothing any of them has to worry about."

But it's hard to strike a spark when you're alone out there, especially if you're an ideas candidate, someone hungry for a debate so you can contrast your heretical ideas about the Democratic Party with the views of more traditional Democrats. The absence of other candidates, Mr. Tsongas contends, tells "the country that Democrats have no confidence in their message."

Unable to duke it out with Democratic rivals, he spends his days instead shadow-boxing with ghosts.

In Waterloo, Iowa, local reporters are invited to watch Mr. Tsongas take his daily swim at the YWCA. It is the campaign's way of trying to defuse the issue of his health.

Mr. Tsongas is the first cancer survivor to run for president, and this summer marks the five-year anniversary of his bone-marrow transplant for lymphoma, the disease that led him to quit the Senate in 1985 after a single term. His doctor says he is in full

remission and fit to be president. But despite his exercise regimen, he can get winded walking up a flight of stairs.

Licking cancer has a very direct link to Mr. Tsongas' decision to run for president, which he calls "the obligation of my survival." But his health draws relatively few questions these days (aides acknowledge it would be raised more prominently if his candidacy were to take off).

There is plenty of comment, however, about the fact that another liberal, Greek-American Democrat from Massachusetts is running for president, a political liability Mr. Tsongas clearly feels quite keenly. Hoisting himself behind the wheel of a giant tractor at the John Deere assembly plant the other day, he turns and shouts down to an aide: "This is not a tank. Don't worry."

He speaks in familiar terms about former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and his campaign ("Michael used to shave all the time," he says, while explaining that he uses pancake makeup to cover his own "Nixonian" 5 o'clock shadow). He has begun to inherit Dukakis campaign veterans (including his driver and advance person on the Iowa trip). When he held his first fund-raiser in affluent upper Northwest Washington, D.C., last week, it was at the same house where Mr. Dukakis held his first Washington fund-raiser four years ago.

In Iowa, there is another phantom to contend with: the prospective candidacy of home-state Sen. Tom Harkin, currently exploring a presidential bid of his own. At every stop, local reporters ask Mr. Tsongas about the potential impact on the caucuses next February.

"For me it would be good," insists Mr. Tsongas, who says he welcomes the chance to debate Mr. Harkin. But a Harkin candidacy could also mean a diminished role for Iowa next year, and one less springboard to national prominence for underdogs like Mr. Tsongas.

Using the same Chevy van that served as traveling campaign headquarters for Mr. Dukakis in 1988 and Gary Hart in 1984, Mr. Tsongas has already covered hundreds of miles of Iowa short grass prairie.

At sunset the other day, riding up front with a state highway map spread across his lap, he endeavored to learn more about this strange place.

"I guess trees would grow up everywhere here, if they let them," he mused aloud to Steve Lynch, the driver and van owner.

"Mmm-hmmm," Mr. Lynch replied, diplomatically.

In line with Iowa's tradition of personalized presidential campaigning, he has hand-written (and personally delivered) a summary of his economic policies for patrons at a Thai restaurant in Des Moines.

Like countless would-be presidents before him, he's cooled his heels in the lobbies of this state's TV and radio stations, waiting for a precious few minutes of free air time.

"Try to keep your answers short," barks the producer of the 6 o'clock news at KGAN in Cedar Rapids, giving Mr. Tsongas the sort of treatment accorded presidential long shots. To others, that might seem like rudeness. But to someone who lay awake nights last winter, worrying that he'd be laughed out of the race, it's more like progress.

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