Nashua, N.H. -- WHEN PAUL TSONGAS arrived at Daniel Webster College here the other day to find more than 500 voters, nine television crews and several dozen hard-breathing reporters, he did a mock doubletake and asked: "What are you all doing here?"
Everyone laughed appreciatively. Paul Tsongas, the determinedly uncharismatic former senator from Massachusetts, has suddenly become all the rage in the Democratic presidential campaign with the New Hampshire primary just ahead. Opinion polls now show him essentially even with the slipping Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. And the scene here reminds everyone of a similar rally Gary Hart attended in Nashua two days before he upset Walter F. Mondale in the 1984 primary -- voters showing up not because of the campaign's advance work but out of genuine interest in the candidate.
The sudden rise of Mr. Tsongas doesn't assure him of success next Tuesday by any means. Mr. Clinton still has formidable backing, and there is a write-in campaign for Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York that deserves to be taken seriously. But the Tsongas phenomenon does make the point that this campaign is extremely fluid and far from over.
The interest in Mr. Tsongas also reflects what appears to be a growing interest in the primary among voters preoccupied with the state's economic travail. Late voter registrations have been heavy, and all the candidates are finding growing audiences of interested listeners. The news media coverage has reached the saturation level, and the same is true of television advertising for the candidates.
There are two central questions to be answered in the final days. The first is whether Mr. Clinton can stop the bleeding he has suffered in the wake of the controversies over Gennifer Flowers and his draft status during the war in Vietnam. The Arkansas governor is coming under increasing fire on the draft issue as rivals Sen. Bob Kerrey and Sen. Tom Harkin attempt to undermine his case that he is the Democrat most capable of defeating President Bush in the general election.
The Cuomo campaign is a new element in the equation. Two different polls now show about 20 percent of New Hampshire Democrats say they intend to write in his name next Tuesday -- enough to put him in second or third place and to underline the doubts about Mr. Clinton's viability. But whether that many voters actually will make the effort is an open question. Some veterans of New Hampshire politics say he would do well to get 10 percent of the vote; others argue he might even win on write-in votes, as Henry Cabot Lodge did in the 1964 Republican primary here, despite the fact more than half the votes will be cast on machines or electronic systems rather than paper ballots.
The rise of Mr. Tsongas, who is credited with having the most devoted supporters of any candidate, is raising questions about what happens next if he were to win here. The conventional wisdom continues to be that there is no future for another Greek from Massachusetts in a party with fresh memories of the campaign of Michael S. Dukakis four years ago. But it must be noted that the conventional wisdom two weeks ago was that Mr. Tsongas' support would melt away in the final days of this campaign.
The Gary Hart experience eight years ago doesn't offer much value as a precedent. Mr. Hart won here, then swept the Maine caucuses five days later and became the clear leader. But closer examination raised enough doubts about Mr. Hart so that Mr. Mondale was able to resurrect his campaign and win the nomination. Although Mr. Tsongas' rivals have begun to take shots at him, there is no evidence that he has been damaged even marginally.
Mr. Tsongas does have a different problem, however, in the nature of the campaign after New Hampshire. His greatest asset as a candidate here has been the fact that both his persona and his message of telling bitter truths about the economy wear well with the voters after long exposure. In an era of sound bite-sloganeering politics, a candidate no one would call slick can have a kind of perverse appeal to voters weary of politics as usual.
But once the votes are counted here, primaries and caucuses follow at a dizzying pace and candidates find themselves forced to rely on quick media hits and commercials rather than their basic message. At least for the moment, however, Paul Tsongas is a very hot property.