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Self-deprecating Tsongas slouches to front of pack


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Stranger things have happened in presidential politics. But not in a long, long while.

Suddenly, with less than a week to go until the first big test of the '92 campaign, here in New Hampshire, the leading contender on the Democratic side is someone who . . . well, let the candidate himself tell it:

"Someone who's Greek. From Massachusetts. Who's had cancer. Who cannot raise money."

Former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, cagey politician that he is, is only too glad to hang a lantern on his shortcomings, especially these days.

He could also mention that he's less than forceful as a public figure. He doesn't stride onto a stage, he slouches. His own TV commercials say he's no movie star, and his face has a hangdog look that's a virtual disaster on the tube. And he's taken enough controversial stands to turn off liberals and conservatives alike.

"Inside the Democratic National Committee, I'm not exactly an answer to their prayers," he said in an interview, with characteristic deadpan humor.

Eight years after quitting politics to battle what he feared was a terminal disease, and 10 months after launching what could only be described as the most hopeless of candidacies, the former one-term Massachusetts senator is within reach of a major upset.

Just a week or so ago, the moderators of a nationally televised debate on PBS, Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil, couldn't even pronounce his name properly (it's SAHN-gus, not ZAHN-gus).

Now, he's the hot new phenomenon of national politics, and each day seems to bring his campaign fresh encouragement. More money is coming, though he is well behind most others in fund-raising. Crowds are growing at campaign events, and so is his lead in the New Hampshire polls.

Yesterday, he was celebrating his finish in the Iowa caucuses, where he ran ahead of all the other candidates except home-state favorite Tom Harkin (though Mr. Tsongas concedes his 4 percent showing isn't much to brag about).

With polls showing that most New Hampshire voters could still change their minds, his aides fret openly that he has peaked too soon. But Mr. Tsongas is a past master of the come-from-behind victory, and he seems now, for the first time in the campaign, to finally be in his element.

Even if he wins here, no one can predict for sure how far that victory might take him. His next major primary state, he says, will be Maryland on March 3, where he claims to have a force of 700 volunteers but remains little-known to most voters. Beyond that, as the campaign moves South, things get even murkier.

In this era of instant political celebrity, Mr. Tsongas is an acquired taste. The people of New Hampshire have had months to get to know him (contrary to the conventional view, he was not very well-known here when he began his campaign, despite hailing from a neighboring state). Whether he can catch on quickly in the rest of the country remains a major unknown.

In New Hampshire, though, the 50-year-old candidate is playing the primary endgame with practiced shrewdness. In the process, he's giving his opponents ample reason to worry.

He is selling himself, in a sense, as the No Bull candidate, and he's doing it at a time when increasing numbers of Americans say they've had it with slick politicians and manipulative campaigns.

Asked yesterday to explain his sudden success, he professed at first to be as baffled as anyone. Then he added: "People come up to me, and grab my arm, and say, 'You're telling the truth.'. . . It's either that," he wisecracked, "or charisma."

Now that the early front-runner, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, is under fire with character problems, the Tsongas campaign has become a safe harbor for some former Clinton supporters. Mr. Tsongas' integrity has yet to be questioned; when he joked at a rally this week about voting illegally in New Hampshire ("It won't be the first illegal thing I've done in my time"), everyone laughed.

He's managed to stay largely above the partisan fray when his opponents were sniping at one another. In a state where voters are hungry for specific answers, he's reserved his anger for matters of substance, like the middle-class tax cuts his rivals are promising.

"There is no easy fix," he sternly declares, with Puritan piety (while at the same time pushing capital-gains tax breaks for the wealthy and investment incentives for business).

Naturally, people love to see an underdog prove the experts wrong. Tsongas rallies have taken on the air of victory celebrations, helping energize his long-suffering supporters for the final push.

The national press, apparently relieved to get away from the controversies surrounding the Clinton campaign, is flocking to Tsongas events. The more time reporters spend on the story of his meteoric rise, of course, the less they'll focus on his political liabilities.

Mr. Tsongas is only too happy to drop news nuggets that illustrate how far he's come; only last month, he told reporters yesterday, he had to sell stock from his daughter's college fund in order to loan $45,000 to his cash-starved campaign.

He is candid enough to admit that he never expected things to work out the way they did: "I'm a genius, in retrospect." And it hasn't hurt that he is far and away the wittiest man in the race; at a press conference yesterday in Manchester, reporters lapped up his one-liners: "I'm proud of having survived cancer . . . when you consider the alternative."

Other campaigns have begun searching for ways to undermine his growing support, without offending voters in the process. Mr. Harkin is attacking him for having the same "mind-set" as Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Mr. Clinton points out that Mr. Tsongas lacks executive experience in government.

Mr. Tsongas' pro-business agenda, including the capital-gains tax cut, is another obvious target ("My economic package rings truer among Republicans," he says), as is his support for nuclear power and gay rights.

The press, meanwhile, is starting to look into his private business dealings, including his role as a director of seven companies and as a lobbyist for, among others, the insurance industry.

But Mr. Tsongas says his greatest problem, both here and down the road, is his health, and he has begun doing what he can to counter it. A competitive swimmer, he's added several masters swim meets to his schedule and now goes out of his way to integrate his cancer fight into his public statements.

Before 500 rapt listeners the other evening in Manchester, he gave an emotional and highly personal talk on the subject, including a reminiscence of his mother's death from tuberculosis when he and his twin sister (who was seated in the audience) were quite young. His speech included lines more typical of a college bull session ("So, what is life?") than a modern-day campaign; the audience appeared to love it.

All the time he was speaking, he confided the next day, he feared that he might break down in tears. Flashing through his mind was the image of another early front-runner, Edmund S. Muskie, whose campaign crashed after he wept at a New Hampshire rally.

To keep from crying, Mr. Tsongas says, he silently reminded himself that his political enemies would use his tears to destroy him. "I just kept thinking: John Sununu," he said, referring to the combative former Republican governor of New Hampshire and former Bush White House chief of staff.

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