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Paul Tsongas isn't a Dukakis clone

The other afternoon, after Democratic presidential hopeful Paul E. Tsongas had finished an appearance here, a supporter in the audience named Mary Beth Murray came up to him in the corridor with an urgent message. "Everything was great about your speech," the Massachusetts woman said. "But next time, don't mention Michael Dukakis."

All Tsongas had done was to recall that four years ago, he had spoken to the same group, the New England Community Action Association, on behalf of the then-governor of Massachusetts, who was making what proved to be a successful bid for the nomination. "This time," said Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, "I'm speaking for myself."

The fact that a supporter thought even a passing reference to Dukakis would damage Tsongas with a group of liberal social workers is an indication of the sensitivity of the "Dukakis problem" to Tsongas' candidacy. Tsongas tries to kid about it, but it is no joke to his campaign.

Is Tsongas another Dukakis? There are obvious similarities, beyond their ethnic heritage and home-state ties. Both are "Watergate babies," reform Dem-ocrats who made their initial breakthroughs in the 1974 election, when Richard Nixon's forced resignation put a huge political premium on personal integrity. Dukakis won the governorship that year and Tsongas, a House seat. Both are highly intelligent men with elite educations at top eastern liberal arts colleges and law schools. Both were attracted to public service by their response to an idealized John F. Kennedy, a heritage which made them natural allies and critics of the crasser patronage politics that surrounded them in the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

They both responded to the economic changes and challenges of the 1970s by using government to leverage high-tech industrial development, Dukakis on a statewide level and Tsongas in his home city of Lowell. And they both were strongly influenced by early experiences in the Third World _ Dukakis as a volunteer in Latin America and Tsongas with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia _ to take a view of international policy that emphasized human rights and played down the ideological aspects of the Cold War.

These are more than superficial similarities; but the differences are at least as basic and important. The most obvious is that Tsongas has a spontaneous, self-mocking sense of humor that was almost utterly lacking in Dukakis. I remember combing the State House in Boston five years ago, when I was working on a Dukakis profile, determined to find at least one funny remark some politician or reporter remembered Dukakis making. I came back with scores of funny lines about "the Duke," but none by him.

Tsongas throws off a dozen quips every day, using them to leaven his deadly serious economic message and to build the kind of emotional bonds with voters that were sadly neglected by Dukakis. One morning last week, facing some 400 employees at the Liberty Mutual insurance company in Portsmouth, he dead-panned, "I'm the candidate of productivity . . . Get back to work!"

The political and psychological differences go deeper. Tsongas grew up in the home of a small businessman (his father owned a dry-cleaner's store), had a corporate law practice for the last seven years, and is avowedly a "pro-business liberal." Dukakis was despised by the Massachusetts business leadership, and returned the compliment.

Dukakis was accurately described by Garry Wills as a "secular candidate," uncomfortable with talk about religious or patriotic values, while Tsongas writes and talks openly about the national culture, "spirituality" and a religious faith that he says was deepened by his bout with cancer.

Playing down ideology, Dukakis ran on his record as governor. When Bush attacked the weak points in the "Massachusetts miracle" and Dukakis' liberal values, the nominee was not ready to respond.

Tsongas is different. He puts his ideas out front and goes out of his way to advertise his deviations from standard economic liberalism. Like Dukakis, Tsongas is convinced that he knows better than anyone else what needs to be done. He talks about economic theories as "economic truths," and when challenged in his belief in capital-gains cuts and industrial policy, says, "There is no alternative."

Even allies find that degree of intellectual arrogance off-putting. "Paul is more human, more vulnerable, more comfortable, more humorous, and easier to be around," said the Massachusetts political colleague. "But he's got that same God-like sense (as Dukakis did) that "I've got the answers.' The difference is that he'll fight for his beliefs _ and Michael wouldn't."

For all the similarities, Tsongas deserves to be judged on his own strengths and weaknesses. He is not a Dukakis clone.

Washington Post Writers Group