WASHINGTON -- Ever since Paul E. Tsongas became the first Democrat to enter the presidential race last April, the former Massachusetts senator has had to battle not only his fellow candidates but a perception that he lacks what it takes to win the nomination, let alone the White House.
Now, with a new poll released yesterday showing Mr. Tsongas taking the lead in New Hampshire -- site of the nation's first primary, Feb. 18 -- and favorable news coverage, a significant number of Democratic leaders still put little faith in Mr. Tsongas' candidacy or give him much chance of winning in the end.
While they are quick to praise Mr. Tsongas for the seriousness they see in his campaign and his economic proposals, and for his courage in overcoming cancer, his electability remains an open question with those party figures.
"My feeling is that he's achieved a grudging respect that would make him a party spokesman for years, but certainly not the nominee," said Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat who was active in the presidential campaigns of Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis and is also a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee.
Voters, Mr. Richardson argued, "don't want a little-known candidate from a small state in the liberal East."
"I don't want to get burned early with someone who looks good on paper like Tsongas but is unelectable," Mr. Richardson said, adding that "there is a certain uneasiness that he might become the front-runner."
A poll released yesterday showed Mr. Tsongas moving ahead of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in New Hampshire. Mr. Tsongas was preferred by 28 percent of the 284 Democrats likely to the vote in the primary compared to 19 percent for Mr. Clinton, according to the poll, conducted by WMUR-TV and the University of New Hampshire.
A previous poll of the same people poll gave Mr. Clinton 30 percent and Mr. Tsongas 25 percent.
Bob Beckel, campaign manager for Mr. Mondale in 1984 and now a political analyst in Washington, commented: "Is there fear among party leaders about Tsongas? Sure."
"I don't think people in this country are looking for a movie star," responded Ed Jesser, a senior adviser to the Tsongas campaign. "They're looking for an answer to the economic disaster in this country, and I believe Paul Tsongas has that answer."
Even if Mr. Tsongas wins in New Hampshire, Mr. Beckel and others said, the true test will come in the March primaries, including the Maryland primary March 3, which is shaping up as a key proving ground.
"I think he could do extremely well in Maryland," said Nathan Landow, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. A strong showing in Maryland, Mr. Landow said, could give Mr. Tsongas "credibility and name recognition" in Southern races down the road. Adds Tom Cowley, the Maryland party's executive director, "There's a lot of potential for him to become a national candidate as a consequence of the Maryland primary."
It is in the South and West that Mr. Tsongas faces an especially tough challenge, a severe test of whether he will be taken seriously. "I don't think Paul Tsongas will be the nominee," said Bob Slagle, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
"It's not just me that feels we don't need another liberal Democrat from Massachusetts with a Greek name," Mr. Slagle said, referring to the political factor that has haunted Mr. Tsongas since he first started running: his link in the minds of many with Mr. Dukakis.
"They feel too burnt by Dukakis," Mr. Slagle said. "That's not fair, but as Jack Kennedy observed, life isn't always fair."
When Mr. Tsongas declared his candidacy in April, Mr. Slagle added, "I said that isn't going to work, and nothing has happened to change my mind since then."
Before voters look at substance, said Angie Elkins of the Democratic National Committee's executive committee, "they look at charisma -- and he doesn't come across well on television." She added: "I don't think he can catch on."
The role of the underdog, though, is nothing new for Mr. Tsongas.
"This is the way he's run every race," said Rep. Chester G. Atkins, a Massachusetts Democrat and a Tsongas supporter and longtime friend. "Paul has always been dismissed and then won the race." Party leaders, Mr. Atkins predicted, "will respond to a Tsongas win in New Hampshire."