LOWELL, Mass. -- The late-starting 1992 presidential contest got baptized in a steady downpour yesterday as former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas became the first candidate to formally enter the race.
His announcement speech, in a rain-soaked park in this restored red-brick mill town, struck themes of economic renewal that the Democrats are likely to employ against President Bush in next year's campaign, especially if the current recession continues into 1992.
In launching his underdog candidacy, Mr. Tsongas (pronounced SONG-us) attempted to exploit public disgust with the federal government and, by implication, the Democratic-led Congress.
The 50-year-old lawyer scorned the "mediocrity" of the current leadership in Washington, criticizing it for avoiding tough choices on a wide range of domestic problems.
"We need leadership that embraces a higher vision. Today, that leadership is not in Washington. That leadership is here and across America," he told a hometown crowd of 500. "That is why I declare today my candidacy for president of the United States."
Out of politics for most of the past decade, Mr. Tsongas faces a daunting challenge in trying to get to the White House, a struggle even more uphill than the personal one he has faced in recent years.
In 1983, he was diagnosed with a mild case of lymphoma, a form of cancer.
He quit the Senate after just one term and underwent a bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The disease is in remission, and his doctor says the chances of further problems are small.
Still, Mr. Tsongas shocked all but immediate family members when he decided earlier this year to attempt a political comeback by running for the nation's highest office.
Besides his lack of a political base and whatever stigma he may bear as a cancer survivor, he is further handicapped by $l inevitable comparisons to another liberal Greek-American from Massachusetts, former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the unsuccessful 1988 Democratic nominee.
The fact that Mr. Tsongas wasn't laughed out of the race at the outset says as much about the state of the Democratic contest as it does about the personal respect he retains from his 10-year career in Congress.
Although the 1992 election is still 18 months away, the presidential campaign is off to a later start than any in nearly a quarter-century.
The Persian Gulf war, which most Democratic presidential hopefuls were reluctant to endorse, and the unprecedented lift it gave President Bush are frequently cited as delaying factors.
Unlike most other potential Democratic candidates, who may fear the consequences of getting beaten by Mr. Bush in 1992, Mr. Tsongas has virtually nothing to lose.
In the early 1980s, he gained prominence, along with such fellow senators as Gary Hart and Joseph Biden, as a "new ideas" Democrat.
Under the rubric of "the new liberalism," Mr. Tsongas urged the Democratic Party to abandon outmoded anti-business attitudes and become partners with corporate America in crafting a national industrial policy.
L His current campaign is largely an outgrowth of that effort.
Tsongas supporters waved signs yesterday identifying themselves as "economic patriots" while the candidate was calling for an increased national commitment to education, energy conservation and environmental protection as a means of restoring the U.S. economy to world pre-eminence.
Standing bareheaded in the rain, with his wife, three daughters and dozens of local schoolchildren seated behind him onstage, Mr. Tsongas accused the Bush and Reagan administrations of burdening future generations with trillions of dollars of federal red ink.
"George Bush promised: 'Read my lips, no new taxes.' It won an election. But what he meant was: 'Read my lips, add more debt.' That is generationally immoral," he said.
Later, across the border in neighboring New Hampshire, the nation's first primary state, the candidate repeated his announcement speech for the TV cameras and an audience of about 25 local Democrats.
Paul Efthemios Tsongas
Feb. 14, 1941, Lowell, Mass., to Efthemios "Themo" and Katina Tsongas.
In Lowell, Mass., where father ran dry-cleaning business. Attended public high school, Dartmouth College (B.A.,1962), Yale Law School (LL.B., 1967), Harvard University (M.P.A., 1973).
Married Nicola "Niki" Sauvage in 1969. Three dausghters: Ashley,, 17; Katina, 13; Molly, 9. Stricken by lymphoma , a form of cancer, in 1983. Quit politics in 1984 to devote more time to family. Disease now in remission. Competes in seniors swim meets.
Where he's been
Served in Peace Corps in Ethiopia and the West Indies. Elected to Lowell City Council (1969-1972), Middlesex County Commission (1973-1974), U.S. House of Representatives (1975-1979), U.S. Senate (1979-1982). Currently lawyer at leading Boston firm.