Bedford, N.H. -- PAUL TSONGAS learned New Hampshire the old fashioned way; he hitchhiked it, not just once or twice, but every chance he could. That was 30 years ago when, as a student at Dartmouth College in the village of Hanover, the only way for a poor kid to get around was through the largess of passing motorists.
He can recall many times standing between lifts on some rarely traveled back road, shivering against bitter cold winds. When a car would approach, he'd put on a smile and hold up his thumb in as friendly a way as he could -- only to see so many of them pass in a cloud of exhaust.
If Paul Tsongas stood by any roadside in this state today the cars would line up to offer rides.
In a primary campaign with lots of stories, few are more poignant than that of the slight Peace Corps volunteer turned senator turned cancer patient turned corporate lawyer turned presidential candidate. And as this state heads into the final hours of its presidential primary -- clearly the most significant primary contest of the 1992 season -- Mr. Tsongas sits atop the polls, a position few outside his immediate family might have predicted just a few weeks ago.
He would be the first to admit that some of that success traces to the problems bedeviling Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. And it helps that he grew up in the state next door and went to college here.
But Mr. Tsongas may well have become the hot candidate even absent Mr. Clinton's woes and local ties. To even put Mr. Tsongas' name in a sentence with the phrase "hot candidate" seems at once completely improbable, yet eminently logical.
Improbable, of course, because this seemingly meek man has been blessed with the kind of face that belongs on radio, the kind of voice that belongs in newspapers. In the era of the sound-bite campaign and media coaches, Mr. Tsongas represents a throwback to the time of two-lane roads and carefree hitchhiking.
At the same time, however, Mr. Tsongas may be the perfect antidote to the '80s, a man who has come to represent a return to sobriety and bedrock values, to sensible shoes, hard-earned money, low-key patriotism and plain-talking politics.
His recent success, which shows little sign of slowing, is aided by a homespun, Will Rogers sense of humor that invariably makes him the surprise hit of almost every audience he addresses. His wit is both self-deprecating and lightning quick, poignant and ingenuous.
Last Thursday he arrived at a conference accompanied by Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., an inheritor of both the Kennedy family's political mantle and its Camelot-good looks. Kennedy took nearly a full 10 minutes to introduce Mr. Tsongas, at times getting so wound up that he pounded the podium.
When Mr. Tsongas finally took the podium looking as hangdog as Mr. Kennedy did electric, he turned somberly to Mr. Kennedy and scolded: "If I knew you were going to be that good, I would never have brought you here."
Then turning to the crowd, he continued: "People say I don't have any charisma -- so I brought some."
Mr. Tsongas can also use humor to slide through a point that, in less deft hands, would seem self-promoting. He never tires of reminding audiences that he announced for president back in April 1991, when President Bush was riding the wave of public euphoria over the Persian Gulf war. Mr. Bush's approval ratings topped 91 percent that week.
"I decided he was vulnerable," Mr. Tsongas said without a hint of humor. "My rule of thumb is that whenever an incumbent gets above 80 percent approval in the polls, then he's fair game for me."
Last week Mr. Bush's ratings tumbled into the mid-40 percent range. "You can see the damage I've done to him," Mr. Tsongas says, eliciting more laughter.
Behind the joke, however, is the point that when others shrank from challenging the incumbent, this gutsy man stood up and took the jeers. Nobody is jeering now.
As every crowd quickly learns, the irony is that when it comes to confronting the issues that plague this state and the country, Mr. Tsongas is the most sober-sided of all candidates. Doubtless part of that relates to his own struggles with mortality in the months after being told that his chances of living for more than two years were almost nonexistent.
Then-experimental bone-marrow transplantation saved his life. But during the agonizing treatment, not knowing what lay ahead, Mr. Tsongas concluded that there was no place and no need for artifice in the public debate. Staring into the face of death has a way of concentrating the mind, sharpening priorities.
So it was that Mr. Tsongas looked at the ills of America and wrote what has become his campaign bible, a booklet he calls "An Economic Call to Arms." It contains no pretense to being all things to all people. On the contrary. The booklet is a take-your-castor-oil prescription, one that suggests discipline and denial for everyone, especially for liberal Democrats. It calls for a 1 percent cut in federal cost-of-living adjustments as a way to slow federal spending.