Tsongas connected in Md.-and won Democrat knew how to win over crowds

March 05, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Paul E. Tsongas is on the stage at Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus. He's being hailed as a man of the people, a humble man from from the gritty mill city of Lowell.

"He's not someone who has a fancy place in Houston," Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II said, referring to President Bush. "He doesn't have a place in Hyannis Port either," the Massachusetts Democrat added, referring to himself and to the Kennedy family compound in Massachusetts. The audience laughs and applauds.

Mr. Tsongas seems to be only half listening.

He's on his hands and knees on the stage. He's leaning forward so he can sign his name for a child in the front row.

Here is the candidate at one of his most unengaged -- and engaging -- moments. And here is the candidate giving the lie, as he did repeatedly over two weeks in Maryland, to the idea that he can't appeal to voters.

"They say I don't have charisma," Mr. Tsongas says when he finally takes the rostrum, "so I borrowed some." He nods toward Mr. Kennedy.

A day later, the former senator from Lowell, Mass., won the presidential primaries in Maryland and Utah, and was leading in the Washington state caucuses. He ran 2 or 3 percentage points from the top in Colorado.

But a day after the election, he was still being described as a man whose "Dweeb" quotient would eventually force him from the race.

The more people see of him, a national political analyst said, the worse he will do.

But the reverse might have been true in Maryland. At a Hopkins Plaza rally, at the University of Maryland Law School, with environmentalists in Annapolis and in several other forums, he seemed to connect quickly with the people who came to see and hear him.

The analyst said Mr. Tsongas would eventually become the "hair shirt" candidate, a man who condemns the middle-class tax cut and who asks voters to recognize that political "lollipops" are a delusion concocted by pollsters.

But in Maryland, the man's humor and straight talk were engaging among the well-educated, environmentally conscious and relatively wealthy voters who supported him.

The negative assessments that continue to follow Mr. Tsongas suggest that charisma means blown-dry perfectionism, a Kennedy-like smile. It is somewhat perverse that Mr. Tsongas is condemned for not having an aura that some regard as manufactured or even phony.

During his Hopkins appearance, students gave him a school sweat shirt labeled "Swimming," in recognition of his butterfly stroke swimming commercial. He turned it so the audience could see the lettering and then carefully folded it.

"Coming from a dry cleaner's family," he said, "I have to fold everything." He looked a bit like Mr. Rogers at that moment, but the laugh lines kept coming.

"George Bush was at 91 percent when I started almost a year ago."

Pause.

Laughter.

"He's down to 39."

Pause. More laughter. Another pause.

"I've done a hell of a job," he says.

The audience is with him in a sort of call-and-response rhythm -- a good line, a good laugh. He keeps it going. And he has a purpose. He's getting his audience ready to hear the things that matter. He's doing it with a skill shown by few others in American politics.

He goes on to offer his audience of 1,300 -- perhaps the largest single crowd of the campaign in Maryland -- a carefully focused narrative of his life. If a voter knows he grew up in a crumbling mill city, he says, if a voter knows about his service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and his encounter with cancer, then his economic program and his passion will follow logically.

Compared with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, perceived by some to have no Dweeb problem, Mr. Tsongas makes the substance easier for the voter to take. The difference is not physical appearance.

The difference is timing and a sense of how much the listener can absorb. Mr. Tsongas appears, at first, to have problems with enunciation. He has a Massachusetts accent. He seems to slur his words. But you never wonder what he's saying.

In contrast, Mr. Clinton comes on so strong with facts and multi-point programs that he leaves the listener gasping a bit -- impressed with the candidate's mastery but scrambling to get a fix on what he has said.

It is somewhat ironic that the candidate with physical charisma -- Mr. Clinton -- is also the most substantive candidate. But he probably lost the race here because Mr. Tsongas quickly connected with people in the midst of a confusing melange of candidates and claims.

Mr. Tsongas told the Shriver Hall audience what he wants to do with America. He wants to "grow the economy." He wants to show Americans that Democrats can understand the importance small businesses and jobs.

He wants patient investors who will invest in America. For them he proposes capital gains tax breaks. He would not help, and might penalize, those who invest abroad or who speculate in things that don't add much to the economy.

He blasted what he calls "ATM Democrats" -- Democrats who think money can be drawn from the automatic teller machines because "God puts it there for them."

"People who think that, never grew up in Lowell," he says. "Those who grew up in Lowell know the definition of liberalism is expansion of the economic pie.

"Anything less is illiberal. Anything less gives you David Duke."

But as the campaign proceeds, Mr. Tsongas will be challenged to go beyond the clever sound bites and arresting cadences to say just how his program will be more than "trickle down" economics, which is what Mr. Clinton claimed with some effectiveness in the last hours of the Maryland campaign.

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