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`Hairshirt' Paul still a thorn in Clinton's side

MISSING PERSONS No. 5 : Paul Tsongas
He has a name like an anagram, the stage presence of an undertaker, and a peculiar diction that swallows the last syllable of every other word he speaks. Yet from these unpromising materials was fashioned a man who this time three years ago, for a few brief weeks, was the hottest politician in America.

Nowhere makes political history quite like New Hampshire. Time after time, presidents are made and broken by the first-in-the nation primary held in this tiny New England state - where John Kennedy launched his bid for the White House in 1960, where eight years later Eugene McCarthy destroyed LBJ, where Ed Muskie wept, and where one dazzling debate handed Ronald Reagan a crucial victory in 1980. On this list also belongs the strange moral crusade of Paul Efthemios Tsongas in 1992.

These days the former Massachusetts senator has slipped back into relative obscurity. Still only 54, he is counsel with a big Boston law firm. Like many an ex-politician, he also makes a nice living on the consultancy and lecture circuit, and devotes much energy to efforts to bring a professional hockey team to his native city of Lowell. But Paul Tsongas is far from forgotten. To his unconcealed satisfaction, the convictions which gave him his improbable New Hampshire victory in 1992 are America's received political wisdom today.

He did not win the nomination of course, although he conferred upon Bill Clinton the curious distinction of being the only candidate to become president without having earlier won his party's primary in the Granite State. Tsongas was the first Democrat into the race in the spring of 1991, an act of quixotic bravery in its own right, given George Bush's stratospheric popularity after the Gulf war.

But doggedly he pushed his "Hairshirt Economics" of sacrifice, spending cuts and a balanced federal budget. He seemed headed for a worthy second place in New Hampshire and decent oblivion - until Gennifer Flowers and allegations of draft-dodging struck Clinton. For a moment it seemed all the "Friends of Bill" couldn't rescue their man. Tsongas won in New Hampshire, and was suddenly a very serious contender indeed.

But it never happened. The "Comeback Kid" did his stuff, while Tsongas, who had survived a near-fatal bout of lymph cancer in 1984, just ran out of gas, physically and financially. Exhausted and out of cash, he threw in the towel a month later after losing the Illinois and Michigan primaries to Clinton. Out of office and out of sight however, Paul Tsongas has never been out of mind. Along with another ex-senator, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, he runs the "Concord Coalition", which lobbies for a balanced budget. And to this day he is a nagging Democratic thorn in Bill Clinton's side.

There is no love lost between them. For Tsongas, the President is a man without principle, while Clinton regards Tsongas as a sanctimonious zealot. Take this exchange from a 1992 candidates' debate: "You're too perfect, Paul," Clinton snapped. "No," came the reply, "Just honest."

Now Tsongas has indicated he will not support Clinton next year, and wants General Colin Powell to mount an independent run for the White House. That may happen, while this very week a balanced-budget amendment has its best chance ever of passing Congress. Tsongas was never meant to be president. But he's some prophet.

Rupert Cornwell