Making Believers

updated 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

ON THE DAY BEFORE NEW HAMPSHIRE voters rocketed him to stardom, a bleary-eyed Paid Tsongas reported at 7 A.M. to the Lowell (Mass.) Sheraton Inn for a satellite interview with The Today Show's Katie Couric. As he seated himself before the cameras, he gave an embarrassed grin and tucked the tail of his jacket beneath him—a trick practiced by the pros. "I feel like a model," confessed the candidate. "How do you like my new tie? It was a gift from my voice coach. Next," he added dryly. "I'll be wearing an earring."

Once stubbornly opposed to spit and polish, the self-deprecating Tsongas—known for his understated style and melancholy mien—has undergone a striking metamorphosis. Just last spring he was slumping by himself, ignoring jokes about the grim fate awaiting Greek presidential hopefuls from Massachusetts. As he climbed slowly in the polls, however, he reluctantly agreed to take a bit of coaching—and to invest in two new suits and an array of telegenic ties. Last week, of course, he won the greatest victory of his career when he beat all Democratic comers in New Hampshire, taking 33 percent of the vote in the primary. These days he has no trouble attracting attention. On Feb. 18 alone, his office received 44 bags of mail.

No one is more surprised by his success than the one-term Senator from Massachusetts, who retired from public life in 1984 to battle cancer. "I never thought it would come to this," says Tsongas. "Here I am, an eight-year has-been.... It's so improbable."

For the 51-year-old Tsongas, his political resurrection marked a double miracle. After he found a swollen gland in his groin in 1983, doctors told him that he had a form of lymphoma that had never been cured. Scrapping plans to run for reelection, he joined a law firm in Boston in order to spend more time with daughters Ashley, Katina and Molly (now 18, 14 and 10) and wife Niki. He hoped also to make enough money to safeguard his family's future.

When his condition deteriorated in 1985, Tsongas underwent a radically experimental bone-marrow transplant at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. It was an excruciating ordeal: After chemotherapy, doctors extracted bone marrow that would be reimplanted after his body was bombarded with high-energy photons designed to destroy both his immune system and any rogue cells. Claustrophobic since childhood, he spent six weeks isolated in a small, germ-free room following the transplant. Now, he says, "I consider myself cured." (Adds his doctor: "I don't know the other candidates' health, but I would say his is better than the average American's.")

While some have suggested that Tsongas' medical history will be a campaign drawback, voters seem willing to judge him on the issues. An erstwhile lobbyist who has drawn fire for his pro-business, pro-nuclear-power stance, he maintains that self-sacrifice is the cure for the nation's economic ills. He prescribes tax breaks for businesses and an emphasis on long-term industrial development, as opposed to fast profits.

Skeleton hunters peeking into Tsongas' closet will be disappointed. A loyal family man, he lauds Niki (who started law school during his illness) as "an amazing woman." Says Tsongas: "Half my staff is in love with her." Despite his apparent moral and political cleanliness, however, he is likely to be haunted by the nebbish factor. Dubbed Saint Paul by colleagues put off by his preachiness, the short, balding candidate has an occasional speech impediment and a negligible stage presence. For all of that, he is impatient with the suggestion that he needs to generate a more powerful image. To one voter, he cracked, "Look at the Japanese. Who was their last charismatic prime minister?"

If the White House seems a long shot, Tsongas is comfortable with the role of underdog. The grandson of Greek immigrants who ran a dry-cleaning business in Lowell, he was a scholarship student at Dartmouth. After a two-year stint with the Peace Corps, he made it into Yale Law School. After graduating in 1968, he wed Niki Sauvage and plunged into politics. In his 1969 campaign for Lowell City Council, he established a pattern that he would repeat. Pegged as a no-chance candidate, he beat seven rivals in the primary, then defeated an incumbent Republican. "It's always the same," says his Maryland campaign chairman, Patrick Smith. "He's the first to announce, he's given no chance of winning and surprises everyone when he does."

When he announced last spring that he was running for President, even his friends, he says, were worried that he would fail. "There were a lot of them that said, 'Nice guy, had a nice career, went out on top, why make a fool of yourself?' " he remembers. Though former Senate colleagues wished him well, none came forward to endorse him. Slowly however, the volunteers appeared—a cadre of students, Republican recruits, old supporters, Peace Corps veterans and cancer survivors. "Paul didn't like making fund-raising calls, but he liked to talk to people with cancer," says Torri Davis, 27, a survivor who was one of his first volunteers.

Whether Tsongas can make it beyond his home turf, of course, is another question. Even supporters concede that he could be mere cannon fodder for George Bush in the fall. But in politics nothing is certain. "Who knows?" says Democratic media consultant Bob Squier. "He's moving up, he's the only one with a real message, and he has a terrific view of himself."

That, and a belief that miracles do happen—sometimes to him.

GARRY CLIFFORD on the campaign trail

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