The Tsongas die-hards are refusing to quit ON POLITICS

Newswatch ... ON POLITICS

March 25, 1992|By Jack Germond And Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There's something rather appealing about the spectacle of die-hard supporters of former Sen. Paul Tsongas refusing to give up hope and attempting to keep his presidential campaign afloat even after Tsongas himself let the air out of his life raft.

In an era in which increasing numbers of political professionals have moved in on the election process for the very large buck to be made, with more interest in the candidate's wallet than his commitments, it's refreshing if perhaps quixotic to see the Tsongas Tcitizen Tsoldiers, as they call themselves, refusing to quit.

Tsongas seemed to be leaving the door open last week when he announced that he was "suspending" rather than closing down his campaign. He said the distinction was made so that individuals elected as Tsongas delegates could go to the Democratic National Convention in New York in July -- a distinction requested by some of those Tcitizen Tsoldiers still fighting in yesterday's Connecticut primary.

In the dreams of those supporters, however, suspending the campaign maintains the possibility of starting it up again if the unforeseen should occur. That phrase is transparent code for the eventuality some Democrats still fear and others hope for -- that new allegations of misconduct against front-runner Gov. Bill Clinton will somehow force him out of the race.

Tsongas in his withdrawal statement pointedly told cheering campaign workers in Boston that his plan for economic recovery by rebuilding the nation's job-creating manufacturing base would surely "endure," and he called on them to continue to press his message. This they decided to do in Connecticut, while trying to raise enough money through Jerry Brown's favorite gimmick, an 800 telephone number, and other efforts by loyal campaign workers in New England and states whose primaries lie ahead, such as New York, New Jersey and California.

Campaigns once shut down, however, seldom if ever are successfully revived. In the closest parallel to this situation, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine suspended his campaign partway into the 1972 primary season after suffering a series of humiliating defeats. He talked about going to the convention as a candidate, however, in the hope that somehow lightning would strike. It didn't, and Sen. George McGovern was nominated.

McGovern himself was persuaded to offer himself as an 11th-hour stand-in for the abruptly ended campaign of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but nothing came of it as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was endorsed by one of the most raucous conventions ever.

In that same year, when Gov. George Romney of Michigan, going nowhere in the polls, dropped out days before the New Hampshire Republican primary, two of his faithful stalwarts holed up in a Concord hotel room and plotted how, with the remaining supply of bumper stickers, buttons and leaflets, "we can still win this thing." They couldn't, and Richard M. Nixon went on to be nominated and elected.

In 1980, Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois dropped out of the Republican primary before the onslaught of Ronald Reagan but pressed on with a third-party candidacy, at the urgings of his true believers. To the end, they fervently held that he was the best candidate, a fresh and honest voice in politics.

Even Sen. Gary Hart in 1987 inspired such constancy in some of his young campaign workers that when he withdrew in Denver and said he was abandoning a prepared statement in which he was going to say "I was withdrawing from the race and then quietly disappear from the stage," they cheered wildly, thinking he had changed his mind. All he meant was that he was going to get some gripes off his chest first.

Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown has been preaching for more than a year the importance of settling on a presidential nominee early and getting on with the business of preparing for George Bush in the fall. In this context, the efforts of the Tsongas Tcitizen Tsoldiers, and the tenacity of Jerry Brown for that matter, work against the interests of the party. But unshakable commitment to a candidate's ideas is a rare commodity in politics these days, and has its value too, in the era of the whatever-it-takes hired gun.

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