POSTED on the bulletin board at Paul Tsongas's presidential campaign headquarters in downtown Boston is a hand-scribbled sign that declares: ``We're No. 2 Already!!!''
Another sign, which also reflects the results of a recent Times-Mirror poll, proclaims:
``Only 2 percent behind Cuomo.''
Tsongas aides can be excused, perhaps, for a touch of bravado in these early days of the 1992 race for the White House. Conventional wisdom says former Senator Tsongas has almost no chance of beating President Bush, or even getting the Democratic nomination.
Yet Mr. Tsongas's underdog campaign follows in the footsteps of other unknowns who surprisingly fought their way to the top of the Democratic Party against famous opponents.
A legacy of longshots
Remember George McGovern's come-from-nowhere campaign in 1972? Or Jimmy Carter in 1976? Or Michael Dukakis in 1988? Within months, Governor Carter went from ``Jimmy Who?'' to become the only Democrat elected president since 1964.
Dennis Kanin, Tsongas's campaign manager and longtime political sidekick, suggests the moment is ripe for a similar upset. Although Mr. Kanin has no ``secret plan,'' as Carter manager Hamilton Jordan had in 1976, he says American voters will see a close contest in 1992.
First, of course, Tsongas has to get the nomination. But Kanin insists he can do it despite the naysayers.
``You have to remember, Paul Tsongas is not running in a vacuum,'' Kanin explains. ``He is running against specific people.''
Kanin has a short list of likely opponents:
* Tom Harkin, a second-term US senator from Iowa, who presence in the race would greatly reduce the importance of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
* Jesse Jackson, the ``shadow'' senator from Washington, D.C., who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988.
* John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, a second-term senator from West Virginia who has little national visibility.
* L. Douglas Wilder, the first-term governor of Virginia, whose fiscal conservatism and anti-tax policies set him apart from most recent Democratic contenders.
* Bill Clinton, longtime governor of Arkansas, whom Kanin says may enter the race to bring a moderate message to the party.
Kanin is convinced that big name Democrats like New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas will duck the '92 campaign. He doesn't believe Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee will enter the race either. Nor will Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, or Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri - all frequently mentioned.
Against the likely field - Harkin, Jackson, Rockefeller, Wilder, and maybe Clinton, none well-known except the Rev. Mr. Jackson - Tsongas's prospects are bright, Kanin argues.
Tsongas is accustomed to being underrated. While he is credited with being intelligent, he's not a rousing tub-thumper (like Cuomo), a household name (like Jackson), or a leader in Congress (like Gephardt). Nor is he as rich as Rockefeller.
Back in 1974, when Kanin managed Tsongas's first campaign for the US House of Representatives, just like today, ``nobody thought he would win it,'' Kanin observes. Tsongas was trying to unseat an incumbent Republican in a district where no Democrat had been elected since 1882. The national Democratic Party wouldn't even lend Tsongas a helping hand, and pundits wrote off his race as hopeless.
The outcome: Tsongas won, 61 percent to 39 percent, the highest for any Democrat running that year against a sitting Republican.
Circumstances were similar in 1978, when Tsongas ousted veteran Republican Edward Brooke by a 55-to-45 margin to become Massachusetts' junior US senator.
``The reason why Paul Tsongas wins is that he's talking about a message that people care about, that resonates out there,'' Kanin says. ``That's what the inside-the-Beltway people [in Washington] are missing....
``That message is not going to be communicated during the first month or the first two months, but over the course of the campaign. People will identify Paul Tsongas as a person with a message of hope for the country, a message about how they can regain a sense of economic security.... I think that's what people are concerned about.''
Ready to debate
Kanin predicts Tsongas's strength will increase as voters comprehend what he is all about. Once they understand him, ``that will mean a lot more to them than ... a tub-thumper.''
The Tsongas campaign is particularly looking forward to the debates with other Democrats. While Senator Rockefeller has his pet project (medical care) and Governor Wilder has his (fiscal conservatism), Tsongas aides say that his message is the only one that is all-subsuming.
``That's when people are going to start paying attention. And when that happens, people are going to see Paul Tsongas as something more than the candidate from Massachusetts who happens to be Greek.''
Meanwhile, Tsongas and his fellow Democrats have a long way to go. When the Times-Mirror asked 1,206 adults last month to recall any Democrat who might run for president in 1992, only 30 percent were able to come up with a name.
Cuomo led the list with 9 percent. Tsongas had 7 percent. Gore had 5 percent, Wilder 3, Gephardt 2, Rockefeller 1, Jackson 1, Bentsen 1, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts 1. No groundswell there.
So can the soft-spoken Tsongas really win in the glitzy world of presidential politics where charisma often equals popularity?
Kanin says he's not worried about charisma. ``Charisma is something that people get when they win,'' he says.