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Despite Tsongas' victory, he still may be only No. 2

Paul Tsongas has been through this before. He enters a political race, everybody scoffs and then he wins.

The mumbling former senator with the hangdog face headed the pack in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday, beating four major competitors and 31 Democratic also-rans. Some of the other four candidates had more experience in office, and all of them were flashier.

The voters liked Tsongas best.

"He just sounds good to me," said Lorraine April, 47, an insurance agent who stood in line to vote in Merrimack. "I like the way he was low-key."

The voters liked Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, too, however, and said they couldn't care less whether he cheated on his wife or dodged the draft in Vietnam.

"I did a little flip-flop when the smut magazine came out and the other issue," said Bill Davis, 27, referring to the tabloid story about Clinton's alleged mistress and the draft story. But Davis settled on Clinton anyway. "I didn't see Tsongas as a national candidate to beat Bush."

Therein lies Tsongas' problem. He is easy to dismiss as a regional candidate because he is from neighboring Massachusetts, while Clinton's strong second place may have restorative powers. With his piles of money and key endorsements in southern states, Clinton will still be the man for everybody _ including Tsongas _ to beat in the next few weeks.

"New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid," Clinton told whooping supporters Tuesday night.

"I just can't wait to take this campaign across the country. I cannot wait to win the nomination, and I know .


. in November we are going to win a great victory against PAT BUCHANAN!"

The crowd went wild. For Clinton supporters, the primary results were the best of both worlds: Their candidate was still alive, and President Bush, once thought unbeatable for 1992, was drowning.

But Clinton was one of the last Democrats to get into the race in October. Tsongas is the candidate who knew a year ago that _ despite the patriotic fervor of the Persian Gulf war _ the country was in economic trouble and President Bush was vulnerable.

When Tsongas announced his candidacy in April, Bush's popularity ratings were soaring off the charts and other Democrats who might run for president were diving for cover. For the first four or five months, Tsongas campaigned alone.

Victory was a laughing matter. Nobody thought Tsongas would warrant much attention. He had been a one-term U.S. senator who quit in 1984 because he had cancer and wasn't expected to live. A bone-marrow transplant saved his life.

His astonishing recovery fit the way Tsongas had so often beaten the odds. He was just a 33-year-old county commissioner from Lowell, Mass., when he knocked off a Republican incumbent to win a seat in Congress in 1974. Four years later, he dispatched a Republican incumbent for the Senate.

Now, Tsongas seems to have been the right man at the right time for this presidential race. The miserable economy in New Hampshire dominated campaign discourse, and Tsongas' message is entirely economic. He says the country must rebuild its manufacturing base, and he derides a middle-class tax cut as a gimmick. He even wrote an 85-page book outlining his views, and he has handed out thousands of copies in New Hampshire, many autographed.

Exit polls Tuesday showed that much of Tsongas' strength came from people who were worried about the economy.

"It's scary for everybody, just going into work and wondering if they're going to get a pink slip," said voter Dianne Cole, 37, in Hollis.

When voters are reminded that Tsongas is an earnest, untelegenic candidate who gives long, detailed speeches about the economy, they love it. This year, nerdy is in.

Tsongas said he thinks he and Clinton will emerge from this race as dual front-runners. The next key primaries will be in Maryland, where Tsongas needs to prove he's not just a regional candidate, and in Georgia, where Clinton has to prove he is still acceptable to the South.

Both benefited from the outcry against Bush in New Hampshire.

One-third of New Hampshire voters are registered independent and could vote in either party's primary. Charles Lafond, 33, was typical of those who voted for Bush in 1988 but are voting Democratic this time. He voted for Tsongas.

"He's not quite as radical as some of the others," Lafond said. "I think out of all the candidates, he probably represents the business standpoint best."

Lafond's disillusionment with Bush was simple. Lafond said his salary stayed the same last year, but he paid $3,000 more in taxes.

"He does this to me every year," Lafond said.

So the Democrats celebrated Buchanan's strong showing along with their own results.

"People now know what I saw a year ago _ that this president has ignored the country and people are upset," Tsongas said in an interview with WCVB-TV in Boston.

"There is no hope. The idea of another four years of George Bush, does that give us any hope or any enthusiasm? Of course not. What happened tonight was what I saw a year ago," he said.

Virtually forgotten in the tortoise-and-hare race between Tsongas and Clinton were the three other best-known Democrats: Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown. The best they could hope for was third place and a chance to do better in other states.

And the write-in campaign for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo fell far short of the hopes of the Draft Cuomo volunteers, who wanted 15 percent of the vote to try to persuade Cuomo to get into the race.

The possibility of another candidate still exists, however. Although the polls were open in New Hampshire, House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said in Washington they thought Cuomo or some other strong Democrat should get into the race.

"If they want to come, let them come in," Tsongas said. "They presumed that I was not viable, that Bill Clinton was not viable. If they think a Washington insider is going to come in and rescue the country from us, then I think they have a very different perspective. That's why people hate Washington. That's the arrogance that Washington exhibits that people find offensive."