DENVER Former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who had not been in Colorado since September, stood on the steps of his state campaign headquarters here the other night, basking in applause.
"I hold no public office," he said in mock wonderment. " I can't even get you Red Sox tickets," A ripple of mild laughter ran through the crowd, and he added; Of course, you wouldn't want them.
The wry comment about Boston's perennial baseball bridesmaid was a reminder of the naysayers' main criticism of Tsongas' candidacy --that his victories in New Hampshire and Maine mark him as no more than a regional candidate.
Taking note of the allegation, he confessed as much to the crowd. "They're right," he said, "North, South, East, West." Up to that time, however, in his two showings outside the East, Tsongas got only 4 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and 10 percent in the South Dakota primary, hardly justifying that observation.
Tsongas went on to quote polls in Colorado showing him as much as 8 percent ahead of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the runner-up in the voter surveys, for today's Democratic primary -- here. Since then, Tsongas' lead has been reduced to 6 percent in the Denver Post/Channel 4 tracking poll, but on this night he was the picture of optimism. He was proving, Tsongas said, that it was his pro-business, straight-talk message that was decisive, not where he comes from.
The validity of the argument gets its test in the Colorado primary, in which Tsongas hopes to become the first 1992 presidential candidate of his party to win somewhere that is clearly outside his own home region. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was not challenged in his home state, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska (( won comfortably in neighboring South Dakota. And if Clinton wins in Georgia's primary, one of seven state tests today, the victory similarly will be discounted by many as only a measure of home-region strength.
The focus over the past week has been largely on Georgia and Maryland, also holding primaries this week, but a victory for Tsongas in Colorado would go the longest toward shaking the argument that his candidacy can't travel. And if he also fares well in any of the other state tests Minnesota, Washington, Idaho and Utah opponents will have to start looking for another reason to explain the phenomenon of this meek-looking but strong-willed cancer survivor who, with his prescription for economic recovery, often sounds like a card-carrying Republican.
The awareness among the other candidates that Tsongas could steal a march on them here has resulted in a kind of ganging up on him, particularly by Clinton, who has made a major effort in the state, and Kerrey, whose own state borders on Colorado and who was expected to be strong as a result of his familiarity with farm and other Western issues.
Running a surprising third in the polls here is former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, whose shoestring campaign has focused on college campuses and environmental themes, particularly opposition to nuclear power, an issue that has put Tsongas, its lone advocate in the field, on the defensive.
Clinton, displaying increasing irritability toward Tsongas, took the lead in attacking him here, accusing him of getting credit for courage when he adopted what the Arkansas governor called "cold-blooded" opposition to middle-class and parental tax breaks. In a heated candidates' debate Saturday, Clinton accused Tsongas of being the first to poison the campaign with a negative television ad misrepresenting his, and Kerrey's, position on a tax cut. Tsongas has charged they would pass the cost on to the next generation, but both have specifically called for higher taxes on the rich now to pay for it.
Although Colorado conjures up images of cowboys and horses, the state has become notably white-collar suburban in the most populated narrow stretch from Boulder through Denver down to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Tsongas' accent and appearance may be different, but his political profile may not be that forbidding for those who will decide the primary.