Concord, N.H. -- THE POLITICAL smart-alecks (including us) laughed nine months ago when former Sen. Paul Tsongas announced he was running for president. Another Greek liberal from Massachusetts? Give us a break. But the laughter has long passed, and while Mr. Tsongas is still rated a very long shot for the Democratic nomination, he continues to cling near the top of most polls for the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary. The current troubles of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas have raised the distinct possibility that Mr. Tsongas could win the primary here. But now, instead of "Give us a break," it's "So what?"
A victory or solid second for him in New Hampshire no doubt would be written off as a reward for dogged campaigning and diligent organizing in Mr. Tsongas' neighbor state, with little future for him beyond. Mr. Tsongas, indeed, acknowledges that his campaign has concentrated so much on New Hampshire that it has had to short-suit the costly and time-consuming tasks of filing for convention delegates and organizing in the host of states holding contests in the weeks down the road.
Mr. Tsongas is hoping for a publicity breakthrough here similar to the one enjoyed by Gary Hart in 1984 when he ran an unexpected second in the Iowa caucuses, upset Vice President Walter Mondale in New Hampshire and seemed on his way to the Democratic nomination. But Mr. Hart did not have the delegates and organizations in place elsewhere to capitalize on his early burst and faltered, and the expectation is that the same is in store for Mr. Tsongas.
That may be so, but for the time being, Mr. Tsongas' staying power is not only a surprise but a mystery to veteran campaign watchers who see an incredibly low-key candidate on the stump without a smidgen of the pizazz usually associated with a winner in the television era of the pretty face and the dynamic personality.
At a recent appearance at a school here, Mr. Tsongas stood before an audience largely of adolescents and not so much lectured but simply held a conversation with them. In the manner of a stand-up comic in a nearly empty night club (although the auditorium was packed), Mr. Tsongas bantered good-naturedly with students and managed to convey a sense that delivering his message was just as important to him as winning.
That message is familiar now: You can't nourish those in need -- the traditional Democratic constituency -- unless you enlarge the economic pie, and that means a pro-business agenda that has always been anathema to many Democratic candidates. Mr. Tsongas delivers the message tirelessly, as tirelessly as he continues to cope with the first question that confronted his candidacy nine months ago -- another Greek liberal from Massachusetts, running in the sour aftertaste of the Michael Dukakis bid of 1988.
Asked about it yet again at the school, Mr. Tsongas in mock seriousness told his young interrogator that he tried to get "the Swiss consul" to change his birth certificate, but when that failed had to settle for admitting he was Greek. From all appearances, his message seems to have gotten past that barrier, and his aides gleefully point to a poll for the Concord Monitor after the Jan. 20 debate among the Democrats in Manchester in which 29 percent of those surveyed declared Mr. Tsongas the winner, to 21 percent for Governor Clinton and a total of 18 for the other three in the debate.
Mr. Tsongas' supporters conclude that the message must be the reason, because even with some pre-debate coaching on how to hold his head and his hands, which he rather shamefacedly admits to, he still came off as a prime advertisement for the use of radio.
The same Monitor poll, which had Governor Clinton leading Mr. Tsongas by 32 percent to 27 as the choice of Democrats, has since found Governor Clinton actually gaining at Mr. Tsongas' expense after the governor's interview on "60 Minutes," increasing his lead to 37-24. But Mr. Tsongas is if nothing else a comfortable candidate, especially to fellow New Englanders, and Governor Clinton's troubles cling or worsen, Mr. Tsongas' candidacy could provide a ready holding room for voters uncertain on where to go.
In any event, with barely more than two weeks to go until primary day, Paul Tsongas for whatever reason remains seriously in the New Hampshire picture in a business in which the unexpected can always be expected to happen, and often does.