Won't Massachusetts Give Up?

WOULDN'T it be ironic if two Greek politicians in a row from Massachusetts won the Democratic nomination for president?

Not yet likely, but at least ironic.

This is former Sen. Paul Tsongas's moment to bask in the prospect of carrying his party's banner next fall.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has been the New Hampshire front-runner. But with the tabloid allegations of infidelity by Gennifer Flowers weighting down one leg while his articulate Wellesley wife, Hillary, tugs at the other, Gov. Clinton appears to be going nowhere in New Hampshire. Then he was asked about ducking military service in Vietnam. Defending himself has cost time.

Clinton is said to be the candidate of the South, and the South is said to be the reality test of electability.

But the only reality test of the campaign is the campaign itself. No region in America really can claim an advantage in political fertility. Certainly not Iowa, with its 10 feet of prairie topsoil. Jimmy Carter, self-styled Southern farmer, Sunday school teacher/ "nuclear" engineer, and Navy man, won the Iowa caucuses in 1976, with help from busloads of Georgians. The publicity thrust carried him through New Hampshire and onward until, before you knew it, Jimmy Who was president of the United States.

Carter "territory" was a series of projections that Mr. Carter cleverly inspired, not geography. After four years in office, with inflation out of control and the country suffering from energy shocks, Carter appeared to have no regional base at all, although blacks were still with him. His big achievement, supposedly the GOP's area of expertise, was in foreign policy - the Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel.

Hence another irony: Today the most significant foreign policy initiative of the Bush administration, all but ignored in the campaign, is Secretary of State James Baker's impressively orchestrated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and other Mideast neighbors. These talks are of greater import than whether candidates should bash Japan for setting the pace in auto manufacturing quality.

The Iowa caucuses, the first test of this year's nomination campaign, held yesterday, had already been conceded to native Sen. Tom Harkin, and any lift from that victory was discounted. As the campaign moves toward the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18, Mr. Tsongas's prospects look pretty good.

Tsongas has a modest maverick quality. He speaks unforcefully, with a near-lisp. He's persistent. Recovered from cancer, he shows an affinity with Sen. Bob Kerrey, recovered from Vietnam amputation and trauma. Will an America under the gun from recession identify with these survivors?

"Democrat from Massachusetts" refers not to 1988 Greek-American party nominee Michael Dukakis or 1992's Tsongas, of course, but to the Irish-American Kennedy family. Never mind that Nixon, Reagan, Carter were of Irish extraction. Ignore that the current governor, Bill Weld, is Republican, doesn't like taxes, and keeps smiling his boyish redhead smile right through budget cuts. Mr. Weld is, in social background, a Bush Republican. President Bush was born in Massachusetts, too, and went to prep school here . A Harvard boathouse on the Charles River is named after the Weld family.

If any territorial advantage can be claimed by a Democrat, it is the California home base of former Gov. Jerry Brown. Mr. Brown is the most experienced public executive of the group. California is an agricultural, industrial, and technological giant. Nixon and Reagan were graduates of its politics. Brown, like Tsongas, is an idea man: But Brown comes across, in the East as in his home state, as a little far out Californian."

In a world where the industrial nations all catch recession at the same time, distinctions like Yankee Northeast, prairie, and even Sun Belt mean less each election.

It's not where the candidate comes from that counts, but where the people think he would take the country.

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