`This Was The Least Desirable Outcome For Us'

President Bush may have stubbed his toe on New Hampshire's rocky soil, but there is no joy in Demville. Far from celebrating Bush's misfortunes, Democrats who hoped to roll up their nominating process without the customary intraparty bloodshed are fretting that despite a compelling message of economic renewal, their Presidential field still consists of a few suspect regional candidates searching for broad national appeal.

Former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas, whose "share the pain" sermons fit in with New Hampshirites' glum mood this year, won the Democratic race with 35% of the vote. But the victory was diminished a bit by Tsongas' favorite-son status, and by his inability to finish off Bill Clinton. "This was the least desirable outcome for us," laments a top Democratic operative. The Arkansas governor, who garnered 26%, recovered from a political swoon triggered by allegations of marital infidelity and draft-dodging, setting up a showdown with Tsongas in the South. The first real test comes on Mar. 3, with the primaries in Georgia and Maryland (table).

There's growing worry among Democrats that both Tsongas and Clinton are flawed candidates. As the Grinch who stole New Hampshire, the dour Tsongas will have a tough time appealing to Dixie Democrats. "He has the message of an investment banker and the bedside manner of a proctologist," says Democratic strategist Terry Michael. Adds Democratic pollster Claibourne Darden: "Tsongas is a safe harbor for Southern Democrats because of his economic message. But first he has to come down here. Nobody knows anything about him."

`HE'S A FLUKE.' Tsongas will also need a gusher of campaign donations to buy TV and radio ads and organize for the grueling marathon ahead. And unfortunately for his cash-starved campaign, it may take a win in a state outside of New England before wary donors are convinced Tsongas is something other than a regional attraction.

To be sure, Tsongas' attacks on the Democratic Establishment played well in New Hampshire. But for now, his appeal is concentrated with more independent-minded suburbanites than with such traditional Democratic constituencies as labor. "I truly believe he's a fluke," says Loretta Bowen, political director of the Communications Workers of America.

While Democratic bigwigs fret that Tsongas isn't charismatic enough, they have the opposite worry about Clinton, an accident-prone candidate whose very political polish is working against him in a year of the outsider. Perhaps more than the furor over Gennifer Flowers, Clinton has been hurt by release of a 1969 letter that indicated that, even as a college student, he was angling to maintain his "political viability" while avoiding the Vietnam draft.

Clinton hopes for resuscitation south of the Mason-Dixon line, especially in the Georgia primary. In Maryland, though, he's no longer a lead-pipe cinch, despite a wave of early endorsements by state elected officials. "There's a big opportunity there for Paul," says Maryland Democratic Chairman Nathan Landow.

Prospects should be better for Clinton a week later in the Mar. 10 round of contests in the Deep South. But even on home turf, he's still seen as damaged goods. No one knows whether the draft-dodging issue could erode his support with conservative Southerners, or whether charges of new indiscretions will surface. Concludes pollster Alan Secrest: "Clinton is on the political equivalent of a Bataan Death March. He may take the South, but he's fighting a war of attrition."

As if the prospect of Tsongas as a Northern favorite and Clinton as a purely Southern force isn't unsettling enough, Democratic power brokers aren't thrilled by New Hampshire's failure to dramatically winnow the field. Political history would argue that Iowa Senator Tom Harkin should cash in his chips after his dismal 10% showing. But Harkin's labor supporters are determined to keep his candidacy alive un-til the first of the big Rust Belt primaries on Mar. 17.

WET BLANKET. Labor wasted no time giving Harkin a shot in the arm. After the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted on Feb. 19 to permit individual unions to endorse candidates, nine major industrial unions banded together to breathe new life into their champion's flagging campaign. Although they've already given Harkin the maximum cash contributions, the unions will rush manpower and organizational support to his aid.

Nor is Senator Bob Kerrey going gently into that good night. While the Nebraskan boasts of winning a "bronze" medal in New Hampshire, his campaign's chances for a revival in the niche states of Colorado and South Dakota aren't likely to impress party fundraisers. That means Kerrey could soon find himself out of both charisma and cash.

On the latter score at least, Clinton appears to have no problems. As soon as the votes were tallied in New Hampshire, the Arkansan flew to Florida, where he expects to rake in $1 million in a series of five fund-raisers. At the moment, Tsongas can only dream of such big financial scores. "The CEO of Macy's wrote an op-ed piece recently praising Tsongas' economic policies," Tsongas told BUSINESS WEEK. "All I could think of was, 'Why won't he just send me a check?' "

REALITY CHECK. Unhappy as many Democrats are with their choices, the New Hampshire outcome has thrown a wet blanket over the idea of a late entry into the race. A week ago, it appeared likely that either House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) or Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) would jump in. That speculation was based on the assumption that Clinton would continue his nosedive and that Tsongas couldn't fill the void. But the pair's close one-two finish and a fizzled write-in effort on behalf of New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo injected a new dose of reality into the backroom machinations. "It is legally and procedurally possible" for a late-starting heavyweight to win the nomination, says liberal activist Ann F. Lewis. "But it's politically less likely now."

Overwhelmingly Republican business interests, who can't be happy about George Bush's political weakness, can take heart from one important feature of the early rounds of the Democratic Presidential competition: Both Tsongas and Clinton come from the moderate-to-conservative side of the Democratic spectrum, and neither one chokes when uttering such business-friendly phrases as "investment incentives" or "the magic of the marketplace." Says Democratic analyst William Galston: "Both men are talking about growth- and investment-oriented policies."

Now, if either Tsongas or Clinton could just convince uncertain Democratic regulars that they've got the right stuff to take on Bush. "I feel like I'm on one side of a river, and I can see a beautiful garden on the other side," says a wistful Richard L. Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers. "But all I have is a leaky rubber raft to get me across. It's frustrating." And it's Democratic politics, '92 style.