MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With the New Hampshire primary one day away, the first question about Paul E. Tsongas is whether he can maintain his lead over Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. But, assuming he wins here, the critical question is: What does he do for an encore?
The answer seems to be a strategy under which the former Massachusetts senator will pick his spots -- Maryland being the single most important -- in an attempt to establish nationally the political credibility it took him months to achieve here.
From the outset, that credibility has been the missing ingredient in the Tsongas campaign.
The wise money in the political community continues to insist that the Democratic Party in the end will not nominate "another Greek from Massachusetts," let alone one with a diffident manner and a speaking style that borders on the soporific.
The conventional wisdom all along has been, and remains, that Mr. Tsongas can raise neither the money nor the voter enthusiasm to be a serious player once he leaves New England.
But Mr. Tsongas and his strategists have been convinced that being seen as a winner is simply a matter of winning more often than expected. They believe that that approach has been validated by his rise to a position as one of the two leading contenders here.
The Tsongas campaign is operating on the assumption that a triumph here will be quickly ratified next door in the Maine precinct caucuses Sunday.
That pattern was established by Gary Hart in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis four years ago. The Tsongas campaign has an organizer in Maine who worked earlier in Maryland, Brian Keane. In addition, it has offices in Portland and Bangor and television advertising already running, some of it aimed as much at New Hampshire voters as Maine caucus participants.
The only other candidates with much visibility in Maine have been Mr. Clinton and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
But, as Mr. Hart demonstrated eight years ago, it is possible to sweep the Maine caucuses with virtually no organization if there is enough of a bounce from New Hampshire.
The Tsongas campaign also has paid for staffers and television advertising in South Dakota, where the primary follows New Hampshire by a week. This had been considered a testing
ground for the two Farm Belt candidates, Mr. Harkin and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. But now there is a question whether either or both will be seen there as viable after the results here.
Mr. Tsongas has a local connection that may be of some value. His father-in-law, Col. Russell Sauvage, is remembered as a football star for the University of South Dakota a generation ago.
But Mr. Tsongas is betting most heavily on Maryland a week after South Dakota, one of seven states that will hold caucuses or primaries March 3. His campaign claims to have 1,000 volunteers and encouragement in the polling data.
"He's already in a close race for first place in Maryland," said Dennis Kanin, the Tsongas campaign manager.
"Among Democratic primary voters, the level of curiousity and interest is so high . . . they really watch those debates."
But targeting Maryland also is at least partly a matter of making a virtue of a necessity.
Maryland and Georgia are the only two states in the Eastern time zone among the seven that hold primaries and caucuses March 3. The others are Minnesota, Colorado, Washington, Idaho and Utah. That means the television networks, the single most important factor in determining the conventional wisdom, will pay them disproportionate attention.
Thus, Maryland is particularly important, said Mr. Kanin, "because it will be the first to report that night."
The other factor in Mr. Kanin's calculation is that Georgia is a state in which a Southerner such as Mr. Clinton should enjoy a pronounced advantage.
The Tsongas strategy also gives a high priority to Washington state. Mr. Tsongas has some valued local backing there, and because the delegates are chosen by caucus rather than primary, the universe of voters to be worked is more manageable for a campaign trying to establish itself as a national force on limited resources.
At this point, none of the other March 3 states offers a special opportunity. Mr. Kanin said the campaign will make a serious effort in Colorado because they are convinced the electorate there may be hospitable to Mr. Tsongas' message on the economy.
But the dynamics in all these states could change depending on the outcome here.
In Colorado, for example, Mr. Kerrey, as the senator from a neighboring state, is the favorite.
In Minnesota, Mr. Harkin is considered the leader for the same reasons. But either or both could be tarnished enough by a weak showing here to change the odds radically.
The importance of the March 3 primaries is enhanced by the fact they come just a week before Super Tuesday, when there will be voting in 11 states.
By then, the game will have become one of accumulating delegates rather than projecting an image.