THIS IS THE YEAR of the anti-hero. Who would have dreamed that the rallying points of voter discontent would be a pugnacious bully named Pat Buchanan and an academic nerd called Paul Tsongas with a silent T.
Forget electability. That's not the issue here. What matters is that the people are singing songs of angry men. Mr. Buchanan has made high fashion out of straight-talking bigotry and isolationism.
And Mr. Tsongas has raised the level of non-charisma to new heights of respectability and middlebrow chic.
It's reminiscent of another election in another time. In 1968, a couple of other outsiders, Eugene McCarthy, the poet-senator, and George C. Wallace, the racist-populist, knocked conventional politics for a loop.
All of which says this could very well be the year when the so-called Reagan Democrats return to the mother party, not so much because they're enchanted with the Democrats'performance, but because they're feeling betrayed by President George Bush. In the suburban zip codes around Washington and Baltimore, the good burghers seem to have had it up to their keisters with Mr. Bush.
Mr. Buchanan attacks the president daily over his flip-flop on raising taxes. Conservatives are openly calling Mr. Bush a liar.
Equally devastating is Mr. Buchanan's bashing of Mr. Bush over his signing of the civil rights law. The president originally had rejected it but then had caved in to congressional Democrats.
Reagan Democrats and conservative Republicans alike contend that Mr. Bush has broken his covenant with the conservative movement by abandoning the principles and programs upon which he was elected. Like Churchill's pudding, Mr. Bush's campaign lacks a theme, mainly because he believes in nothing but political advancement.
As outsiders, Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Tsongas both take a straight-ahead, no-shuck-and-jive approach to politics. Mr. Buchanan was one of the White House speech writers who gave Spiro T. Agnew such uplifting speech as "troglodytes" and "nattering nabobs of negativism."
For his part, Mr. Tsongas' principal campaign selling points are his sack-suit simplicity and monotone voice, along with a deadly 45-page treatise on economics that reads like an honors paper at Yale, his alma mater.
But he also wears chevrons of a Ted Kennedy liberal. During his years in the Senate, he voted differently from his Massachusetts colleague only four times.
So while conservative Republicans as well as Reagan Democrats feel betrayed and abandoned by Mr. Bush, Mr. Tsongas is enticing the disaffected by breaking away from orthodox Democratic economics.
It's ironic that as vice president and later as president, Mr. Bush helped divide and steal away Democrats from their home base.
And it's amusing that with the help of an apostate Republican and a renegade Democrat, Mr. Bush may help drive Democrats back to the party of the people.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on politics.