WASHINGTON -- Almost reveling in his underdog status, Democratic presidential candidate-to-be Paul E. Tsongas said yesterday that his party must change if it hopes to regain the White House in 1992.
"The country does not believe that we can run the economy," said the former senator, who will become the first contender for the nomination when he formally announces his candidacy later this month in his hometown of Lowell, Mass.
Mr. Tsongas, 50, who casts himself as an "economic Paul Revere," previewed his pro-business, anti-Washington message in what he acknowledged was an improbable appearance before the National Press Club.
In 1984, Mr. Tsongas abandoned a promising political career, at age 42, to fight lymphoma and a prognosis that he had only a few years to live. After a bone marrow transplant in 1986 and radiation therapy and chemotherapy, his disease is now in remission.
"The odds don't bother me," he said of his presidential quest, noting that his previous election victories in Massachusetts were written off as flukes. "This is going to be the fifth fluke," he predicted.
Depicting what he termed his "two lives" -- before and after cancer -- Mr. Tsongas said he has spent the past 7 1/2 years traveling to "places in the mind that I never visited before." As a result, he said, he feels compelled to run for president to promote his solutions to the nation's economic and social problems.
"I'm absolutely convinced that I know where we must go," he said. "To remain silent is to deny the obligation of my survival."
Over the past two months, he has made preliminary forays to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to choose delegates next year to the political conventions. He has also distributed more than 40,000 copies of a lengthy position paper outlining his "Call to Economic Arms."
Mr. Tsongas departs from liberal Democratic orthodoxy in calling for an emphasis on economic growth. He supports a targeted capital gains tax cut, looser antitrust regulations and nuclear power and the Bush administration's free-trade agreement with Mexico.
Asked yesterday how his economic program would differ from President Bush's, he shot back, "I've thought about it."
Though he disparages the "demagogue's appeal to protectionism" by other Democrats, Mr. Tsongas repeatedly singled out Japan and Germany in deploring the nation's economic decline and the sale of American assets to "outsiders."
He criticized the Democrats' political formula of class warfare and business bashing and called on the party to reinvent itself as corporate America's partner in the fight against foreign competition.
"No more rhetoric. We're going to act like a CEO in a business," he said, adding that he hoped to force a national debate on economic growth in the 1992 campaign.
Despite his effort to portray himself as something of a Democratic heretic, Mr. Tsongas could find that his critique is widely shared by many others in the party, said Mike McCurry, a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee who attended the Press Club event.
But while Mr. Tsongas could surprise the experts in the early delegate contests, because the expectations for his candidacy are so low, he still faces an uphill battle in trying to persuade Democratic activists that he could actually win the nomination, said Mr. McCurry, who served as press secretary in the 1988 presidential campaign of a similar Democratic iconoclast, former Arizona Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt.
Besides Mr. Tsongas, other unannounced Democratic candidates have begun stepping up their activities in recent weeks, including Tennessee Sen. Al Gore and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who recently formed an exploratory committee and dispatched campaign professionals to Iowa and New Hampshire.