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Tsongas Opens Presidential Spring

PAUL TSONGAS tosses on the table an 83-page, single-spaced manifesto of his political notions - one of 25,000 copies on "100 percent recycled paper" in the first printing - as if throwing his challenge in the ring. He began writing the text not long ago as a book. Books are a polite but usually ignored means of affecting public policy. Mr. Tsongas soon sensed the manuscript might prove to be a double helix code of the real thing, a presidential campaign.

Do his ideas "resonate" with those who would have to elect him? This is what he is visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C., to find out.

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Will this first robin of the 1992 presidential spring stay awhile? We at the Monitor wanted to know, and Mr. Tsongas came by to talk. His song is not relentlessly cheerful.

George Bush's astronomical approval rating gives Tsongas the Democratic field to himself. A vulnerable Bush would turn Democrats out in droves. Tsongas, a former US senator, has been out of public office for much of a decade. Still young, he has recovered from a serious illness and made a little money. He has a touch of a tan. His voice is soft. Ironic smiles play across his face. If his ideas don't carry him, he knows, he's through.

He is a Greek American from Massachusetts, like Michael Dukakis; comparisons will dog him. He refers to the economic revival of his hometown, Lowell, an old textile center, much the way Dukakis talked about the Massachusetts miracle - even as New England plunged into recession. Lowell rose with the computer industry's tide and now is sinking with it.

Tsongas is an economic pragmatist. He backs a capital-gains tax reduction for investments that produce jobs. He laments the decline of the US national savings rate and envies the ascent of savings in Germany and Japan. Savings would provide capital for US companies, encourage longer-term investment, and reduce the inflow of capital from abroad, he argues.

The Tsongas theme is "A Call to Economic Arms: The New American Mandate." He sees economic peril from Europe 1992 and from the Pacific Rim. Fellow Democrats have to learn "you cannot distribute wealth that is never created." Republicans are blind to America's decline in high technology, manufacturing, financial services. Labor will like hearing that "America should be the preeminent manufacturing nation on earth again," even if they can't believe it.

Education: Tsongas would focus on prekindergarten years 135> la Headstart, on after-school hours for older kids who would return to empty homes and apartments, and on job skills training.

Environment: Tsongas sees a progression of time frames - the Depression/World War II, the cold war, Vietnam/civil rights/nuclear war. Fear of nuclear war has abated. The new global disequilibrium is environmental: trash, lethal air, spent forests. Youth are alarmed at a future that is "hazy to short-term-focused adults." Require design standards for recyclability. Let Alaska alone. Start a mini-Manhattan Project for nonfission nuclear options.

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Foreign policy: Launch a Marshall Plan II for the Soviet Union and East Europe, funded by a coalition of North American, EC, and Pacific Rim nations. A Pax Mundi, armed United Nations enforcement of world order, must replace today's Pax Americana.

Sure, this is political stuff, the robin's wheedle-oop of a presidential spring.

Jimmy Carter came to our editorial office 16 years ago at a similar early point in the 1976 campaign. Still "Jimmy Who?," he sat forward on the red leather couch that has been here since FDR was first elected. He recited three-by-five card answers to any question. Nuclear power? He was a nuclear scientist. (Not true.) He was certain - I mean, certain - he would win. That certitude was an unnerving element in an impressive performance - it would get him elected and later into trouble in office.

Are Tsongas's ideas stoking in him the requisite "fire in the belly" of presidential ambition? (Never mind why anyone would aspire to that discomfort.) He recalls the flush of ambition from his Senate days - a whole chamberful of proud, would-be chief executives. He thinks he is beginning to feel it.

Tsongas presents himself as a liberal realist. By staking out America's dire straits for his campaign, he may be abandoning confident optimism, that other political theme, to opponents.

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