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New Hampshire's message

Unpredictable, cantankerous and informed, New Hampshire voters did more than set up front-runners and alter the dynamics of the 1992 campaign in Tuesday's presidential primary. They also did themselves proud.

Given their economic miseries, the voters might have been forgiven had they rewarded pandering and hot-button campaigners. Instead, they vented their anger and frustration on President Bush, who got his political hide peeled back, and they lifted up a "pro-business" Democrat, Paul Tsongas, who prescribes bitter medicine, not placebos, for an ailing economy.

Bush "won" the primary, but Patrick Buchanan's strong vote, approaching 45 percent, has exposed the president's vulnerability. Buchanan is not finished with the president, whom he accuses of betraying the Reagan Revolution. Bush's challenger from the right won't wrest the nomination from the president but he can soften up Bush for the Democrats. The president's poor showing can only increase the value of the Democratic nomination.

Tsongas refused to campaign as a good-news messenger and New Hampshire voters gave him a victory to savor. This bland Greek-American from Massachusetts might just grow on people disgustedwith politics as usual.

Bill Clinton, whose campaign was rocked by allegations of adultery and draft evasion, finished a strong second. Now he is looking to his native South to help him snatch the lead away from Tsongas. About all you can say about Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown is that they ran well behind Clinton.

While his Democratic rivals offered mostly painless and quick-fix solutions to the nation's problems, Tsongas gave it to the voters straight. He asked for sacrifice. Tsongas' rallying cry _ maybe a first in Democratic politics _ was: "I'm not Santa Claus." New Hampshire voters listened and responded to Tsongas' low-key, issue-centered campaign.

The Tsongas campaign was different. It was not about charisma, protectionism, gimmicks, tax cuts, populism, big-time consultants, slick media advisers or hot-button issues. Tsongas is an earnest messenger bearing a mostly unpleasant message.

The voters are ready for serious talk from the candidates. That may be the real message from the nation's first primary. Let's hope voters in other states will measure up to the standard set in New Hampshire.