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A tough choice for Democrats

For Democrats, the primary boiled down to two utterly different men and one question _ electability.

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a tall, square-shouldered, pumpkin-faced extrovert, bowls people over with his charm. Color him effervescent. Paul Tsongas, an introverted ex-senator from Massachusetts, is slight, round-shouldered, hollow-eyed, understated and flat. But he grows on people.

As beverages, Clinton is moonshine; Tsongas is apple cider _ tart, but good for one.

Physically, they're as different as Airedale and basset hound, but ideologically, they're brothers, at the right end of their party. It's their pasts that give pause: Clinton's conduct in love and war; Tsongas' history as a cancer patient. An added fear is that he is a regional candidate.

Clinton was clearly born to run. With little children, with old ladies, he is magic. He scoops up small girls in red Valentine dresses, and kneels before small boys with turned-around baseball caps.

Tsongas is reserved, in the New England way. He shows his dimpled smile only for cause.

A month ago, Clinton had it won. Granite Staters fell in love with his plans and his hugs. Tsongas was still a joke. Clinton was dishing up tax breaks and racial harmony; Tsongas was proffering hard times, sacrifice and his dreary manifesto, "An Economic Call to Arms."

But as it was soaring straight up, Clinton's campaign craft was hit by a missile from the trash press, a charge by Gennifer Flowers of a long affair.

For Tsongas, the turning point was the second debate on Jan. 19. Coached by a cousin, he had spruced up his slovenly diction. He had learned to lace smugness with wry jibes about the charisma gap in his personality.

Clinton was regaining altitude when another missile struck, this one from the Wall Street Journal about his Vietnam draft record. He did what most of his contemporaries did: He tried to get out of it. And once again the dread character issue perched on his shoulder.

The way the two contenders spent the last weekend of this turbulent campaign illustrates their changing fortunes: Tsongas was basking in his lead, celebrating his 51st birthday; Clinton was frantically scouring the state to win back his lost legions.

Tsongas attended a fund-raising birthday party at the Concord, Mass., home of his cancer doctor, Tak Takvorian. The ebullient doctor played Hail to the Chief on his pipe organ as the candidate sidled into the parlor, to cheers and laughter from the assemblage.

Later, in Nashua, at a senior citizens housing project, Clinton showed his incomparable talents as a campaigner. A wretched blind woman sobbed out the story of her plight: She and her husband can't afford both food and medicine on their Social Security.

The low-ceilinged, overcrowded room fell silent. Clinton moved to her side, took her in his arms and laid his head against hers.

"I'm really sorry," he murmured, holding her close.

What made the scene more poignant was that she could have said the same to him.

Universal Press Syndicate