What if Paul Tsongas turns out to be Right? On Politics Today


November 11, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

MERRIMACK, N.H. -- "Nobody ever says to me, 'you're wrong on the issues,'" Paul Tsongas observes. "They say, 'you don't give a good speech' or 'you're a Greek.'"

As a piece of political analysis, that is as good as any. In the aftermath of Michael S. Dukakis, another Greek-American from Massachusetts doesn't seem to be just what the doctor ordered. And no one ever accused Paul Tsongas of a rhetorical style that sends his followers walking through walls.

One result is that the onetime senator from Massachusetts has been consigned to what is euphemistically called the "second tier" of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. That means, in essence, that he has yet to establish national credibility as a potential winner. Moreover, since 1976 one of the lessons of the New Hampshire primary is that you don't win it unless you are credible nationally. But what if that lesson no longer applies?

There is one significant difference between the campaign here this year and those of the last four cycles. In those campaigns candidates won credibility by either winning or exceeding expectations in the Iowa precinct caucues. This year those caucuses will have little or no meaning because there is a home-state candidate in the mix, Sen. Tom Harkin.

So it is at least possible that the primary here will serve the purpose it served before 1976 -- as the place in which the pecking order among the candidates is first established. And if the primary is indeed a throwback, Paul Tsongas has to be taken more seriously.

It is already obvious, for example, that he is running a campaign like those in the pre-Iowa days, meaning one that relies heavily on personal stumping (he has spent more than 30 days here this year; his wife Niki spends two or three days in the state almost every week) and a ubiquitous organization (he has six full-time staffers and 175 to 200 volunteers on the ground). It is a formula that paid off here for both Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George S. McGovern in 1972.

There are some signs it still works. An opinion poll last month showed him leading the active Democratic candidates with 24 percent, twice that of the rival who has spent the second most effort here, Harkin. And the notion that this is solely a product of his advantage as a former senator from a neighboring state doesn't hold up to close examination. Tsongas hasn't campaigned in Massachusetts since 1978. And an earlier survey gave him only 7 percent; if his position as a neighbor was the key, why didn't it show up then?

So there are other factors. One obviously is that heavy organizational presence. His rivals have become accustomed to seeing Tsongas volunteers lined up along their campaign routes, placards held aloft for the press. The other, Tsongas is persuaded, is the state's preoccupation with its economic distress and his own emphasis on economic issues.

That concentration is clear. Over a quiet dinner here, Tsongas mentions that he favors term limitations, but adds that he doesn't talk about it much on the campaign trail. It might interfere with his basic message--outlined in the 85-page position paper that launched his candidacy -- that the Democratic Party must make common cause with American business to produce the jobs so sorely needed in so many places.

"I've got to be a Johnny-One-Note on the economy," Tsongas says. "I want people to say, 'this son of a bitch knows what he's talking about.'"

Knowing what you're talking about is not necessarily the road to success in an era of sloganeering and sound-bite politics. And the paper credentials of Paul Tsongas don't immediately qualify him as a serious player. But veterans of Massachusetts politics know the same thing was true when he won a Democratic Senate primary against two better-known rivals and then defeated Republican Sen. Edward W. Brooke in 1978.

A campaign for a presidential nomination is, of course, a different dish of tea. Tsongas must overcome not only skepticism about himself but formidable and well-financed competitors. And he must do it here in New Hampshire, where a failure would winnow him out of the field overnight.

He is trying to do it with this throwback campaign. The smart money says it won't work. But what if the wise guys are wrong? It's been known to happen.

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