Leading in N.H., Tsongas looks south


CONCORD, N.H. -- In a testament to his qualities as a candidate, Paul E. Tsongas drew enthusiastic crowds on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, which he is favored to win today.

Yet, even among his supporters there was evidence that his formula for success in New Hampshire may be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

When he announced, "I'm from Massachusetts," as he did yesterday at Phillips Exeter Academy, the applause was a sign of how his years as an elected official from a neighboring state helped him across the border.

The former senator won't get such a regional boost again, except in Maine and Massachusetts.

Mr. Tsongas flies to Maryland tomorrow to test his appeal for the first time outside of his native New England.

For Mr. Tsongas, the Maryland primary March 3 represents a key opportunity to quiet doubts that he cannot win in the South. The majority of Southern primaries will follow Maryland's on March 10.

"In a poll that took place about three weeks ago I moved into second place in Maryland," he said yesterday at a rally. "And the last time I looked, Maryland is not part of New England."

As much as he tries to make a joke of being a "Greek from Massachusetts," the ghost of badly beaten 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis will haunt him to a degree yet to be determined.

And there's no question that Mr. Tsongas's rise is due in no small part to the self-inflicted fall of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Once a distant second in the polls, Mr. Tsongas shot to first after recent negative publicity about Mr. Clinton's draft record.

"He's an incredibly lucky guy," marveled Dave Quealey, who once lived in Mr. Tsongas' hometown of Lowell, Mass.

Mr. Quealey, now a resident of Kittery, Maine, came to hear his former senator speak yesterday morning in Portsmouth, N.H. He recalled how Mr. Tsongas was aided in his 1978 U.S. Senate race against Republican Sen. Edward W. Brooke when the incumbent was tarred by divorce-related financial allegations and a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry.

But if such luck has helped pave the way, Mr. Tsongas deserves -- and takes -- the credit for being the candidate best equipped to take advantage of it.

Voters respond to the reform message in his 86-page booklet, "A Call to Economic Arms."

For more than a decade he's been saying the Democratic Party needs to be liberal on social issues and pro-business on economic ones. Now, with hard times, people seem ready to listen to a man who rails against middle-class tax cuts and prescribes tax incentives to stimulate manufacturing, the "engine that drives the economy."

"This is very impressive," said William Howells, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Harvard University, pointing to Mr. Tsongas's booklet.

Mr. Howells came to hear Mr. Tsongas speak in Portsmouth, as did nutritionist Kate Bashline.

"I think he's offered me a lot more facts than most of the other candidates," Ms. Bashline said. "Somehow I believe him. I'm pretty skeptical in general with politicians."

Mr. Tsongas' near-fatal bout with cancer in the 1980s, which he talks about regularly, clearly helps humanize him in the eyes of voters.

"He's seen enough of life [that] he doesn't want to hurt people," said Janet McKone of Dover, who says she will vote for him.

Whether Mr. Tsongas will be able to get through to voters in other states as he has in New Hampshire is another question. He's had almost a year to get his message across here. But, beginning tomorrow, he and his opponents will have to rely heavily on television advertisements as the primary field widens across the South.

Although often criticized as lacking charisma, Mr. Tsongas has tried to turn that into an advantage with self-deprecating humor. Yesterday he sported a campaign button bearing the picture of his wife.

"I saw Niki on television for the first time and said, 'I'm jealous.' She just came through the television set. So I'm going to stand aside," Mr. Tsongas joked.

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