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Tsongas finds it lonely on campaign trail

Rolling across Iowa in "Van Force One," Paul E. Tsongas has all the trappings of a presidential candidate: an advance person, a press secretary, reporters who question him at each stop. But something is wrong with this picture. What is it?

The rest of the campaign is missing, that's what.

Tsongas has a towel with the presidential seal on it in the van, but he doesn't have an opponent.

"I'm the world's supply of Democratic candidates for president," he jokes. He also says, "I'm getting lonely. I need some company."

From the hog farms of Iowa to the coffee shops of New Hampshire to the ritzy residences of the nation's capital, the 50-year-old candidate is on an audacious mission. He's trying to prove that someone who dropped out of the political rat race seven years ago can come back and win the nation's highest office on the strength of an 85-page position paper.

His candidacy, he says, is a test of the notion that "ideas have legs." By design, his approach is 180 degrees removed from the slick imagery of the 1988 campaign, which, he says, left many voters with a sour aftertaste.

"There's a real yearning to have a discussion and talk about what's happening in this country," he says. "People want to have more substance than before."

Interviewed on a Cedar Rapids TV station, he plugs his paper and invites viewers to call for a copy. He has exhausted the initial supply of 45,000 copies and had 25,000 more printed. Many have been sent to opinion leaders in government and the news media. "If they're not talking about that paper, I'm in trouble," he says.

Being the one and only candidate has its advantages. When a Times Mirror poll asked Americans recently if they could recall any Democrats who had been mentioned as presidential contenders, the number who named Tsongas was second only to those who recalled the name Mario Cuomo. Never mind that only 7 percent mentioned Tsongas or that three out of four people couldn't come up with any names at all.

"Never in my wildest dreams," Tsongas says, did he expect to have the presidential field to himself for so long. "In my view, every day I have to myself with my paper and my message is a plus."

But the burst of press attention that followed his announcement in April has faded.

Along with his traveling press corps of one in his speeding van, Tsongas analyzes the failure of any rivals to jump into the race. "I don't think any of them take me very seriously," he says without rancor. "So I can be out here on my own, and I'm nothing any of them has to worry about."

But it is hard to strike a spark when you are alone out there, especially if you are an ideas candidate, someone hungry for a debate so you can contrast your heretical ideas about the Democratic Party with the views of more traditional Democrats. The absence of other candidates, Tsongas contends, tells "the country that Democrats have no confidence in their message."

Unable to duke it out with Democratic rivals, he spends his days instead shadow-boxing with ghosts.

In Waterloo, local reporters are invited to watch Tsongas take his daily swim at the YWCA. It is the campaign's way of trying to defuse the issue of his health.

Tsongas is the first cancer survivor to run for president, and this summer marks the five-year anniversary of his bone-marrow transplant for lymphoma, the disease that led him to quit the Senate in 1985 after a single term. His doctor says he is in full remission and fit to be president. But despite his exercise regimen, he can get winded walking up a flight of stairs.

Licking cancer has a very direct link to Tsongas' decision to run for president, which he calls "the obligation of my survival." But his health draws relatively few questions these days.

There is plenty of comment, however, about the fact that another liberal, Greek-American Democrat from Massachusetts is running for president, a political liability Tsongas clearly feels quite keenly. Hoisting himself behind the wheel of a giant tractor at the John Deere assembly plant the other day, he turns and shouts down to an aide: "This is not a tank. Don't worry."

He speaks in familiar terms about former Gov. Michael Dukakis and his campaign, and he has begun to inherit Dukakis campaign veterans.

Like countless would-be presidents before him, Tsongas has cooled his heels in the lobbies of this state's TV and radio stations, waiting for a precious few of minutes of free air-time on the news.

"Try to keep your answers short," barks the producer of the 6 o'clock news at KGAN in Cedar Rapids, giving Tsongas the sort of treatment often accorded presidential long shots. To others, that might seem like rudeness. But to someone who lay awake nights, worrying that he'd be laughed out of the race the day he announced, it's more like progress.