Innocent On Stump

March 20, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Eating dinner with a reporter in San Diego last spring, Paul Tsongas recounted his appearance with Sen. Tom Harkin at a candidate cattle show in Wisconsin a few days earlier. The Iowa Democrat, Mr. Tsongas said, was really worked up to fever pitch.

"He was so emotional," the former Massachusetts senator said, "he actually said, 'Bull - - - -.' "

The fact is, of course, that Mr. Harkin's use of the expletive in his speeches was more of a shtick than a reflection of any emotion -- something he did in every speech in an attempt to gain attention in that early stage of the campaign. But the fact that Mr. Tsongas didn't understand the game Tom Harkin was playing was a measure of his beguiling naivete as a green candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For him, the campaign was not an occasion for shticks and gimmicks but for serious discussion of the issues. He was the candidate with the 85-page economic program he pressed on anyone even remotely interested. He was the candidate who believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that a presidential campaign could be educational for the electorate.

But more than anything, Mr. Tsongas believed that the right message would bring political success. The result was a single-minded campaign focused on his contention that the Democratic Party must make common cause with business to create more jobs. "I've got to be a Johnny-One-Note on the economy," he said early in the New Hampshire primary campaign.

Indeed, Mr. Tsongas' focus was so narrow -- at least in the early stages of his campaign -- that other issues were ignored. He remarked off-handedly one night in November that he supported term limitations for officeholders but chose not to talk about it on the campaign trail.

Nor did Mr. Tsongas have any illusions about the baggage he carried as an almost determinedly unexciting campaigner and as "another Greek from Massachusetts" running for president four years after Michael S. Dukakis. He was convinced the message was good enough to be enough. "Nobody ever says to me, 'You're wrong on the issues,' " he said. "

The early campaign schedule gave Mr. Tsongas an almost ideal opportunity to make his point. Because the Iowa precinct caucuses were considered meaningless, coming on the home ground of Mr. Harkin, the campaign in New Hampshire became the test. And the long contest there gave the voters a chance to become familiar with both the message and the messenger. The fact that he lacked conventional charisma gave him a kind of cachet that voters seemed to accept in a state preoccupied with its economic distress.

By the final days of the New Hampshire campaign, supporting Paul Tsongas became a mark of political sophistication. Mr. Tsongas clearly enjoyed his brief fling as a popular favorite. Arriving at a rally in Nashua to find more than 500 voters and a press army, he did a mock double-take and asked: "What are you all doing here?"

Mr. Tsongas's campaign was not always free of conventional politics, of course. There were times when he became self-righteous about his refusal to be Santa Claus promising all things to all voters.

But in the end, Mr. Tsongas was undone by both the delegate-selection system and his party. Except in New Hampshire, there was no time or opportunity for him to overcome the reservations about his personal style and to make his case for economic sacrifice. And the core constituencies of the Democratic Party were seeking a more conventional politics.

It was true that, as he put it when he stepped aside, "There's no accounting for our success absent the message." The miracle of the Tsongas candidacy was that he enjoyed as much success as he did.

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