LIKE the children's fairy tale about the tortoise and the hare, the New Hampshire primary could have a surprise ending.
Former Sen. Paul Tsongas, playing the role of the tortoise, got into the race early, but experts scoff at his chances. He has "no glamour," they say.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, playing the hare, got into the race late. But he was hot. His poll numbers zoomed from zero to front-runner in just a few weeks.
Then came Gennifer Flowers, blasting Governor Clinton in a tabloid expose. Whether Clinton was guilty of marital infidelity - as she charged - or innocent may never be known. But Clinton's quick sprint to the Democratic presidential nomination slowed down, and New Hampshire voters stopped to take a second look.
Meanwhile, the tortoise plods ahead. As he worked his way up to second place in the New Hampshire polls, Tsongas has suffered countless political critics. "He has the charisma of a homeless person," grumbles Claibourne Darden Jr., a pollster in Atlanta. "He is a Greek from Massachusetts and that raises echoes of Michael Dukakis," cautions G. Donald Ferree, a political scientist at Connecticut's Institute for Social Inquiry.
Yet in his quiet way, Tsongas is winning converts across the Granite State. As a leading Democrat here explains: "Clinton has a lot of support, but it is very soft. Tsongas's support is as hard as a rock. He could win it all."
The other night at the University of New Hampshire, Tsongas showed that some critics may be underestimating him. His staff had booked the second largest auditorium on campus, hoping for a large turnout. But even they were surprised by the crowd. Long before Tsongas began speaking, the auditorium was filled with students and faculty members. The crowd overflowed into the hallways, and up the stairs, so the staff opened an extra room. It immediately filled up, too, and eventually many students had to be tu rned away.
Those who got inside saw a soft-spoken man who talked to them about making America a stronger, greater country. He told them about overcoming problems, personal and societal. He called upon them, in the spirit of President John Kennedy, to make sacrifices for their country. He described the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and George Bush as a decade of greed.
Tsongas, who has overcome serious health problems of his own, says Americans should not shy away from today's growing challenges. Those challenges can make this a much better nation.
"Everybody has some adversity in his life. No one escapes. No one ever has a perfect life. That's true of society as well. And the deciding moments of a society, and of individuals, is in response to adversity," he told the audience. That is when "we discover ... what our purpose is."
Looking at the human experience, Tsongas observes: "Life is short." While the life of a nation is longer than an individual, the same rational applies, he says What is the purpose of the life?"
For many Americans during the 1980s, the purpose of life was money. He recalls that when he made a 1984 commencement address at Yale University, 55 percent of the graduates had applied to one Wall Street investment firm. In such cases, the purpose "is self - and it doesn't work."
The problem with the current Republican leadership is "lack of purpose," Tsongas charges. Without purpose, President Bush is driven to make decisions based on political cynicism. He notes that Mr. Bush used to support Planned Parenthood. Now he opposes choice on the abortion issue. Bush also used to oppose Mr. Reagan's "voodoo economics." Then he embraced it to get on Reagan's ticket. Bush used to be a strong advocate of civil rights as a young congressman. Now he uses divisive tactics like the 1988 Will ie Horton campaign ad.
Tsongas asks: "How do you do it inside?" How does Bush resolve these philosophical clashes within himself? Tsongas charges that to "placate the Reagan right," Bush has made "a Faustian bargain" that reflects his own personal "lack of purpose."
As a Democratic contender, Tsongas has already proved himself to be different. Mr. Ferree says Tsongas sounds like a pro-business Republican. But Tsongas says he is offering American voters a choice of someone who make the difficult decisions needed to turn this country around economically.
For example, when his fellow Democrats endorsed a middle-class tax cut, Tsongas said no, and asked, How will that help us compete with Japan? He would rather cut taxes on long-term corporate investments to increase spending for new machinery.
Tsongas says he is driven by purpose, not by ambition. If people don't want to vote for him, he shrugs and says, "Big deal!"
"I'm talking about a climb up a mountain, not downhill. If the country is not willing to climb, they'll not elect me," he says matter-of-factly.
More and more New Hampshirites seem to like that kind of blunt talk.