WHEN Paul Tsongas wants to get a laugh, he talks about his American cars.
"I used to own a Ford Pinto," Mr. Tsongas recently told a campaign audience, which chuckled sympathetically. "I would drive that car and I would say to myself, 'Why do these people who built this car hate me? What did I do to make them treat me like this?'
"Then I went to a Chevy Vega," he continued. "They hated me, too!" The audience roared.
Tsongas, one of the major Democratic candidates for president in next week's New Hampshire primary, sympathizes with the current "buy American" trend in the United States. Despite his two terrible experiences with Detroit cars, today he owns a Jeep and a Chrysler, both US-made. He says $15,000 for a new car is too much money to turn over to this nation's economic competitors.
But Tsongas cautions Americans that most of their economic problems - from the auto industry to electronics - aren't the fault of the Japanese. They are home grown.
"Buy American" has become a popular slogan along the campaign trail as the 1992 presidential campaign picks up steam.
The White House proudly explains that when the Secret Service lets him use something besides his limousine, President Bush drives two all-American products, a Ford pickup and Ford Bronco.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democratic front-runner, has fixed up a classic 1965 Ford Mustang convertible in which he tools around Little Rock. His wife, Hillary, drives a 1989 Oldsmobile Calais.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, another Democratic contender, has never owned a foreign car, his press spokeswoman says. He motors around Washington in a Chevy station wagon. In his spare time, the senator is fixing up a 1977 Chevrolet Corvette.
Even former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who has studied Buddhism in Japan, buys American. His car: a 1990 Mercury Sable.
Of the major candidates, only Republican Pat Buchanan bought foreign. He owns a Mercedes, which his press office explains he purchased because his wife wanted a safe car, and it had the highest safety rating. He also owns a Cadillac, but it has "been having problems."
All the recent emphasis on buying American products brings smiles to the face of Brian Flood, president of the Made in the USA Foundation.
"I cannot describe the intensity with which people are now concerned with this issue," Mr. Flood says. "I think we are on the brink of a fundamental change in consumer buying habits."
Even doubtful economists admit that Americans have tremendous power in their wallets to rev up the American economy if they begin looking for the "Made in the USA" label.
America's trade imbalance with Japan stands at about $41 billion a year, mostly in automobiles. Although there are no exact measurements, some economists estimate that for every $1 billion of deficit, the US loses 20,000 jobs. Thus, America's trade imbalance with Japan probably costs the US 820,000 jobs in industries like autos, computers, and consumer electronics.
Put another way: Erasing the trade deficit would be a big step toward ending the recession.
The "buy American" furor began when Bush traveled to Japan to seek trade concessions, but came up almost empty handed. His trip was followed by lectures from Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who says Americans lack "a work ethic ... to live by the sweat of their brow."
Sales figures released last week, however, offer little immediate encouragement to US manufacturers. Auto sales by Toyota and Honda, both Japanese companies, rose sharply in the last 10 days of January. Last month, cars with Japanese nameplates commanded 30 percent of the US market, up from 27 percent in January 1991.
Those figures support the skepticism of some experts, such as Linda Maddox, a business and marketing professor at George Washington University. Dr. Maddox notes that US car makers have been trying to rally American consumers around the flag "for about seven or eight years, and [consumers] have not budged an inch."
Maddox worries that if there is a real buy-American movement, it will "stem from emotionalism," rather than sound economic reasons. She compares that to "marrying someone for infatuation," then later wondering, "what have I got here?"
If Americans buy US products for the wrong reasons, and they are unhappy with their cars, stereo equipment, computers, or TV sets, it could trigger a backlash against US industry, she warns.
But analyst Alfred Eckes Jr. of Ohio University says there could be short-term benefits to a buy American campaign. Dr. Eckes, who served for nine years on the US International Trade Commission, says it can help even if a US product isn't as good as a Japanese product: "The national interest is not necessarily comparable with personal interest."