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Campaign 1992: Round One

HARRY TRUMAN. Lyndon Johnson. Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter. George Bush?

Will Mr. Bush join the list of his predecessors whose presidencies petered out with disappointing performances in the New Hampshire primary? A sitting president plays in the biggest "expectations" game of any political candidate, and when even a win in the first primary falls below expectations (Johnson in 1968, Carter in 1980), his political prowess comes into question.

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The president won 59 percent of the Republican vote in the Granite State Tuesday; but in grabbing away 41 percent, Patrick Buchanan - a boyhood street brawler who once decked two Washington, D.C., policemen - gave Bush a roughing up.

It's unclear that outside small, recession-wracked New Hampshire, Mr. Buchanan will be as successful in tapping into a vein of voter discontent. His protectionist, nativist message is not what the United States needs today, and it will wear thin over a long campaign. Also, his shoestring campaign is short of funds. Nonetheless, Buchanan will probably bank enough support for his right-wing insurrection to skirmish with the president through a number of additional primaries.

Buchanan could be the perfect foil for the president, however. The challenge will force Bush to get back into campaign shape and hone his message; and against the rather easily caricaturized Buchanan, Bush should be able to position himself as the "responsible" conservative.

On the Democratic side, winner Paul Tsongas must feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of politics. Even after taking 35 percent of the primary vote - 9 points more than Bill Clinton - Mr. Tsongas still can't get no respect from the political establishment. The conventional wisdom persists that a "heavyweight" Democratic candidate - a Lloyd Bentsen, Dick Gephardt, or Albert Gore - must leap into the race to exploit Bush's vulnerability.

But any outsider who jumps in now risks looking like a rank opportunist. Tsongas has already carried a lot of water for the Democrats against a once-seemingly-invincible Bush, and we see no reason why he shouldn't continue to impress voters with his sober but not hand-wringing message.

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