WASHINGTON. — Washington -- For a political generation, most presidential candidates have had TV consultants who tell them to soften their hair, brighten their tie, talk in 10-second sound bites, and not say ''ah'' between thoughts. But most contenders don't go around admitting to strangers that they hired a coach to improve their public persona.
That is one of the ways Paul Tsongas is different.
He not only admits he has bought that kind of advice, but that he needed it. ''They taught me some things I'm going to try to do, some little techniques I never thought about. But am I going to be Mario Cuomo?'' he asks. Nobody needs to answer.
''I'm a very private person, soft-spoken by nature,'' says the former senator from Massachusetts. ''If I change that, I'm a phony. But I can do better.'' That may sound too modest, even to himself. Tip O'Neill once called him the lowest-keyed politician he'd ever met -- but, notes Mr. Tsongas, ''I never lost.''
After two terms in the House and one in the Senate, he left Washington when diagnosed with cancer, fought that off, and now after seven years on corporate and academic boards maintains he is better qualified for the White House than if he had stayed in Congress.
Thus, despite his years here, he styles himself an outsider, a category aspired to by any ambitious politician familiar with the history of the past 15 years. Jimmy Carter, briefly governor of Georgia, actually qualified for it. Ronald Reagan, two-term governor of California, did, too -- the first couple of times he ran for president. It worked so well he was still playing the role after eight years in the White House.
Mr. Tsongas predicts that contenders for the Democratic nomination next year will break into two groups: himself, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Doug Wilder of Virginia right of the party center, and Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jerry Brown of California and possibly Bob Kerrey of Nebraska as traditional Democrats. In the end, one from each group will still be standing, and he hopes to be the one on the right.
Those other candidates, if and when they enter, will confuse that neat scenario. Ex-Governor Brown, for example, has reopened his public musing about the presidency with a blast at both parties in Washington. Whether Senator Kerrey will sound traditional is yet to be seen. And there is serious question about whether any of their approaches will matter if Governor Cuomo quits playing Hamlet and decides to enter. ''He would be the 900-pound gorilla from Day One,'' Mr. Tsongas says.
The ex-senator defies current party wisdom by supporting a capital-gains tax cut, opposing the middle-class cuts sought by congressional Democrats, and calling for an immediate $2 billion NATO contribution to the Soviet economy. Other Democrats are chastising the president for devoting too much attention and money to affairs abroad, and not enough of either to critical needs at home.
After nearly six months as the only announced candidate, Mr. Tsongas is hardly more visible than when he started. He pretends to be comfortable with that: ''The advantage of being an underdog is you can let it all hang out; there's no zTC prevent-defense mentality.'' But to raise his profile, he plans a couple of TV spots next month to introduce himself and his ideas to the country at large.
He maintains that except on economic issues, he is in the Democratic mainstream. He is strongly pro-choice on abortion, and says Mr. Bush for made ''a Faustian bargain'' by switching his position -- ''a Planned Parenthood member who sold his soul for the vice-presidential nomination.'' Yet Mr. Tsongas frankly expects his ideas to have more appeal to at-large voters, particularly suburban independents, than to the hard-core Democrats who dominate primaries and caucuses.
''I'm not running a primary strategy,'' he says as he plods along the primary trail. ''It's not about how to beat George Bush. It's a January 1993 strategy."
Such a campaign plan calls for more leaping than plodding -- somehow vaulting over the primaries to election day, when he is counting on hard economic times: ''In a vast country, you have one chance to be recognized. If by election, the things I predict happen, I'll be the one candidate the country can turn to.''
He doesn't say so, but he must have before him the image of Jimmy Who?, the soft-spoken, unheard-of peanut farmer quietly working the back roads of Iowa in the mid-70s. Politicians often see things the rest of us don't.
C7 Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.