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Democrats set out to test political fortunes

The people who spend their time thinking up political scenarios still haven't figured out what's going to happen to the Democrats who want to be president.

By all conventional measures, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is the odds-on favorite to win the upcoming primaries in the South. He has money, endorsements and organization. The South is his home. His strong second-place showing in New Hampshire might indicate he has allayed voters' doubts about his character.

And yet .

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Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator who led the voting in New Hampshire on Tuesday, is just so darn nice.

Well, okay, he's short, he's dour and he's sometimes dull. But he's smart and sincere. And he promises to tell Americans the truth about the economy even when it's unpleasant.

"I find him a very appealing candidate," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. "In the post-Reagan era, the anti-hero might fly."

"The candor, the absence of hyperbole, the anti-charismatic dimension _ all those things I think people find refreshing _ plus the absence of negativity," said Bruce Buchanan, who teaches government at the University of Texas. "All those things make him a much more appealing package than people first realized."

The Democratic candidates all caught early flights out of New Hampshire on Wednesday and headed to the states where they must test their political fortunes in the next few weeks.

For Tsongas, that was Maryland, where he hopes to prove on March 3 that his candidacy can survive outside New England. For Clinton, it was Georgia, which will be his first test in the South on March 3, then Florida, which is one of 11 states to vote on Super Tuesday on March 10.

The candidates left New Hampshire after the nation's first presidential primary with a clear message that voters want change but with mixed signals about who can best achieve it.

They also left a cozy, homogeneous state for the vastness and diversity of greater America, knowing they must broaden their appeal to voters from the plains of South Dakota to the inner cities of Baltimore and Miami. Immediately.

After the Maine caucuses this weekend, which usually echo New Hampshire's vote, the next primary is in South Dakota on Tuesday. Chances are that Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa or Bob Kerrey of Nebraska _ or both _ will make a last stand there.

The senators were roughly tied for third place in New Hampshire with insurgent Jerry Brown, the former California governor who is campaigning against the evils of big money in politics. Harkin and Kerrey both hope to do better in South Dakota, where they might be considered neighbors.

"We're going to have to win someplace by the close of business March 3," said Tad Devine, Kerrey's campaign manager.

Twenty-seven states have primaries or caucuses in the next month. More than half the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will have been chosen after Illinois votes March 17.

The system was designed to get a nominee early so the Democrats could focus on unseating President Bush. But the system is thwarting other Democrats considering the race at this point, including New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. He is waxing ever more wistful about running for president, despite winning only 3 percent as a write-in candidate in New Hampshire.

"The more powerful figures in the Democratic Party are on the bench, and I think that's the story here," said Charles Royer, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. "This would be 1980, only there's no Reagan to deal with (Jimmy) Carter. And there are a lot of heavier Democrats who are kicking themselves around the block for not being in this thing."

Tsongas scorns the Washington insiders who want to run now that Bush has been wounded, and accuses them of arrogance.

But Tsongas has his own tendency toward piety, and it's one of the problems he knows he will face from time to time. He tends to characterize his economic views not only as pragmatic but morally superior. Tsongas says his wife Niki brings him up short when he starts sounding like St. Paul.

Tsongas will have other problems, too. Although he has been free from cancer for five years since a bone-marrow transplant for lymphoma, he has a perpetually haggard look that voters notice. He already has been heckled by protesters for his acceptance of nuclear power. Despite his conservative economic stands, his voting record in the U.S. Senate was as liberal as fellow Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and sometimes more so.

Tsongas suddenly finds himself facing millions of Americans who do not know him, and he has very little time to get acquainted.

"Who is this guy Tsongas?" asked James David Barber, an expert on presidential politics at Duke University.

Contrary to popular opinion, Barber said, the press is making a mistake by trying to focus on the candidates' policy statements and downplaying their life stories. A candidate's stand on the issues is no clue to his performance in office.

"Just think about how you had Nixon running as a gentle, good, virtuous person," Barber said. "You had Ronald Reagan running as Franklin Roosevelt. You had (Lyndon) Johnson running for president as Mr. Peace. All that kind of stuff turned out to be not what we should be concentrating on."

That is why Clinton's character might still be an issue in the campaign, said Hess at Brookings.

"The presidential vote is the most personal vote, the most personal political action that any American takes," he said. "And I think they care a great deal about the sort of person that's in the White House."

The trick for Clinton, Tsongas and the others will be to focus on a couple of Super Tuesday states where each of them might really win, so the results will be divided and everyone can claim victory, Hess said.

For Tsongas, "The sleeper might be Florida," Hess said. "Here's a state that is not nearly as southern in the old sense, a lot of former northerners coming down there, a state with some urban centers. I think there's an audience for him there."

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