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Politicians ought to ponder the Tsongas victory

Anyone who spent any time in New Hampshire lately could tell House Speaker Tom Foley that he's going about it in the wrong way if he really wants to stop his party's new front-runner, Paul Tsongas. Every time the speaker knocks him, he gives him a boost.

New Hampshire voters hated any number of people: George Bush obviously, the press intensely, but most of all Congress. Every time a speaker mentioned the dead-of-night congressional pay raise, the roof came off the place. People who didn't believe anything else he said agreed with George Bush when he blames Congress for the current economic mess.

Foley's rage is directed against Tsongas' rejection of a pet Democratic congressional project, the middle-class tax cut. Tsongas calls it pandering, and says people don't want 97 cents a day, they want jobs.

Foley should remember that the New Hampshire primary was a model of democracy at work, of a pondering, participating electorate. The turnout was 60 percent. Tsongas won it fair and square. There were no dirty tricks on his part, no PAC funds, no media blitz. Money was not the deciding factor; Tsongas didn't have any. Intelligence was, and he has plenty of that. The discussion was about the issues.

Foley and other frequenters of the Capitol Hill mourners' bench would do well to remember that Tsongas deserved to win New Hampshire, just the way Bush deserved to lose it, and he has some standing in the country. They should also remember that the middle-class tax cut, no matter how highly House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski regards it, was debated, voted on and turned down by real voters. It came up in every one of the four debates; it had its defenders _ Bill Clinton for one. If it were as popular as Foley and the House Ways and Means Committee seem to think, Tsongas would have lost.

All politicians would do well to study the anatomy of the Tsongas victory. It epitomizes the anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood of the voters. It shows that spontaneity, ingenuity and well-thought-out positions still have a place in American politics.

Ralph Nader was out beating the drums against Congress. Even without him, Congress would have ranked No. 1 on the hate parade. The pay raise, for which Foley fought hard, inflames people who are collecting unemployment insurance. Even the two senators in the race, Nebraska's Bob Kerrey and Iowa's Tom Harkin, didn't spend any time defending the institution.

Foley, in his calmer moments, knows you can't beat somebody with nobody. Calling Tsongas "Senator Dukakis" to re-ignite the shudders of 1988 won't help. Maybe Foley can groom and saddle some congressional steed. Maybe he can persuade the cowardly lion of Albany to rise from his haunches and pad into the arena. So far, nobody has moved, and Democrats are wondering if they can go all the way with a candidate who is short on charisma but not without inspiration.

The story of his New Hampshire victory is a saga of rags to riches that should reassure people who had glumly come to believe that politics is only money, that guile and grit still matter and that American voters _ improbable as it may be after 12 years of triumphant mindlessness _ are still susceptible to ideas.

Universal Press Syndicate