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Tsongas surprised to be leading pack

Some of Paul Tsongas' political fans are comparing him to the U.S. Olympic hockey team and its surprising victories.

"Nobody gave 'em a chance," said Ed Kirby of Nashua.

Nobody gave Tsongas a chance when the former Massachusetts senator began his campaign for president in April. Nobody gave him a chance when he toiled in New Hampshire month after month, doggedly handing out copies of his 85-page book about economics and spreading the grim news that Americans must sacrifice to get their country back on track.

Nobody gave him a chance until a few weeks ago when front-runner Bill Clinton stumbled and Tsongas, everybody's second choice, plodded into the spotlight.

"This is so improbable, yet so inevitable," Tsongas told 300 well-wishers at his final campaign stop Monday in Nashua. "The message is: The message counts. People want to know where we're going."

A lot of people still don't give Tsongas a chance to win the Democratic nomination or to beat President Bush in the fall. But the polls say he's going to come in first today in the New Hampshire primary.

Tsongas, 51, describes himself as a pro-business liberal. That apparently means he's comfortable talking about a capital gains tax cut and gay rights in the same speech.

Some of his fellow Democrats say he's in the wrong party, that his economic ideas belong to the Republicans, but Tsongas says both parties have been wrong about economics. The key to the future, in his view, is to rebuild the manufacturing base in America. He is haunted by a childhood in the dying mill town of Lowell, Mass., just five miles from New Hampshire.

"Where did Bush get his economics? From Bob Teeter, his pollster. That is presidential?" Tsongas asked the crowd.

"No!" chirped a 6-year-old girl on the front row.

Surprised, Tsongas hoisted her onto the stage, gestured grandly and said, "I rest my case."

Tsongas had been in the Senate for one term when he learned he had lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that at the time had never been cured. A bone-marrow transplant saved him, and he has been free of cancer for five years. But the wear shows on his face, and his style is so stolid that his lack of charisma has become a running joke in his speeches.

His supporters don't much care.

"I have a problem with people saying who's "electable,'

" said Kirby, 63. "Tsongas may never make it. But I'm going to vote for him because I think he's most qualified."

Bill Totherow, 46, a chemistry professor in Nashua, has abandoned President Bush and will be voting for a Democrat today for the first time in his life. He attended the rally to help make up his mind between Tsongas and Clinton, and his argument was typical of undecided voters Monday.

"They talk about charisma," he said. "I don't think that's important. But you have to energize people. After all, the president of the United States is the leader of the world. When they speak, you want somebody to listen. On the other hand, we're too much into image. That hasn't served us well."

Tsongas was warmly received by the crowd in Nashua. They laughed at his low-key jokes. They indulged his apologies for his unbecoming glasses, which have replaced his contacts since a wood chip flew into his eye during a factory tour. And when an anti-nuclear demonstrator dressed in a bright yellow Bart Simpson costume began to heckle Tsongas, the crowd drowned him out with boos and shouts of "We Want Paul."

Tsongas told the crowd that America will begin to change with the vote today. On Wednesday, after his victory, Tsongas urged his supporters to go off by themselves and sit quietly in their favorite chairs.

"Savor, feel what you have done," he said. "You are moving this country in the direction we must go. It is a unique moment."