Bradley has a model in Tsongas '92

May 27, 1999|By Robert A. Jordan

IN NEW Hampshire, the candidacy of presidential hopeful Bill Bradley in 1999 is looking more like the candidacy of Paul Tsongas in 1991 -- with a few key exceptions.

Vice President Al Gore, the acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic nomination, would be wise to familiarize himself with the surprise victory Tsongas pulled off in the New Hampshire primary in 1992. If Mr. Gore did, he might take Mr. Bradley a little more seriously.

The little-known advantage that Tsongas, the former U.S. senator from Massachusetts who died in 1997, had eight years ago is basically the same advantage Mr. Bradley will have in the 2000 primary: He's considered a long-shot (a special appeal to voters seeking a fiscally conservative liberal) and he has a reputation for being "clean," with none of the kinds of problems that President Clinton has faced and the fund-raising questions Mr. Gore is still dealing with.

Also, Mr. Bradley has a dry sense of humor and a low-key campaign style that allows him to look more human than many politicians.

Two other New Hampshire primary winners had similar characteristics -- Eugene McCarthy and former President Jimmy Carter, both of whom positioned themselves as the alternative, if not the anti-politician, candidate. Mr. Bradley appears to have a similar appeal to New Hampshire voters.

Tsongas was so appealing in 1992 that even many registered independent voters voted for him in the primary, something that's permitted in New Hampshire. Even though some of them wanted to vote for GOP candidate George Bush that year, they assumed he would win his battle against Pat Buchanan and thus opted to help Tsongas edge out other Democratic hopefuls, including Mr. Clinton.

So many independents wanted to vote for Tsongas that year that several towns in southern New Hampshire almost ran out of Democratic ballots. Ironically, Tsongas' upset victory was almost overshadowed by Mr. Clinton's second-place finish ahead of two other Democrats, which earned him the title as the "Comeback Kid."

Mr. Bradley appears to be positioning himself as the viable independent alternative to Mr. Gore's heavily-financed candidacy. In addition, Mr. Bradley's clean image could play well next to questions about Mr. Gore's fund-raising problems.

But there are also key differences between the Tsongas and Bradley campaigns that could hinder Mr. Bradley's chances of pulling off an upset victory next year.

Tsongas, for example, was so little-known, and viewed as such a weak candidate, that New Hampshire's elected officials and political operatives were unwilling to jump on his bandwagon.

However, some of Tsongas' early campaign advisers saw this not as a liability, but as an advantage. The workers began building the Tsongas campaign with community leaders rather than elected officials, which gave Tsongas a non-political image that worked well among New Hampshire voters.

On the other hand, while Mr. Bradley's candidacy is actually stronger than Tsongas' was in the early months, Mr. Bradley's current campaign team may work against him. Instead of surrounding himself with independent, nonpolitical New Hampshire community leaders, Mr. Bradley has been bringing in fairly well-known political operatives. That costs him an image as an outsider, a maverick.

At this early point in the campaign, Mr. Bradley is a well-established candidate who has to be taken serious; at this point in the 1992 campaign, Tsongas was not taken seriously, even in his home state of Massachusetts. It was Tsongas' low profile that helped him to quietly build a community-oriented campaign team that appealed to so many New Hampshire voters. In the end, Tsongas enjoyed all the advantages of a candidate who came from behind.

Mr. Bradley would do well to bring community-oriented people into his New Hampshire campaign, such as the head of a town Little League and president of a Rotary Club, as did Tsongas.

In the end, a lack of money forced Tsongas out of the race. Mr. Bradley, however, may have the financial resources necessary to compete with the very financially able Mr. Gore, especially if he upsets the vice president in next year's Granite State primary. Mr. Gore, of course, is working hard to make sure that does not happen.

With no incumbent president, the media spotlight is likely to generate more national voter interest in both the GOP and Democratic winners.

If he hopes to do as well against Mr. Gore in the New Hampshire primary as Tsongas did against Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bradley in 1999 may have to become more like candidate Tsongas of 1992. And that may be as tough a challenge for Mr. Bradley as being more like Mr. Clinton is for Gore.

Robert Jordan is a Boston Globe columnist.

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