Tsongas Has Lots Of Lookers But Not Enough Buyers

President Bush can jet off to California and return with a fresh $2 million in his campaign war chest. And the checks roll in to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton's well-oiled money machine. But Paul E. Tsongas is still the Avis of campaigns: He has to try harder just to keep rolling.

Although donations picked up after the former senator from Massachusetts won the New Hampshire primary, Tsongas' campaign is still strapped for cash as the Mar. 10 Super Tuesday primaries loom. Fat cats have been slow to open their wallets despite Tsongas' probusiness stance. Many still question his electability.

Potential donors are kicking the tires, though. Texas entrepreneur H. Ross Perot says he is intrigued by Tsongas but has yet to make a contribution. New York investment banker Felix G. Rohatyn says he likes Tsongas' message, but adds: "I like Bill Clinton, too, and I've met him."

NOT-SO-CHEAP THRILL. A few of Chicago's rich and curious came to check out Tsongas over coffee on Feb. 24 at the home of Vigoro Chairman Joseph P. Sullivan and his wife, Jeanne. The 33 guests each kicked in $1,000, but, again, they came more for the novelty than out of support. William Wolf, who advises Chicago's wealthy Crown family, says he stopped by because he's a Republican unhappy with Bush's economic policies. But he left unconvinced: Tsongas "just doesn't have a way of captivating a crowd."

The candidate's quirky charm has played better to smaller givers. On Feb. 22, a crowd of supporters turned out at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel to toss $25 apiece into shoeboxes. Total take: $100,000. The nation's Greek community, still smarting from Michael S. Dukakis' 1988 thrashing, has belatedly rallied to Tsongas, chipping in almost $500,000 since New Hampshire. And on one recent day, Tsongas collected $114,000 in mailed-in contributions. Many of these small gifts come from contributors excited by reading Tsongas' 86-page Call to Economic Arms.

Like Tsongas, Republican insurgent Patrick J. Buchanan has turned to unconventional fund-raising. While business, fearing retribution from the Bush Administration, has shunned Buchanan, the pugnacious conservative has a secret weapon. Right-wing mailing lists have generated almost $1 million, more than half of his total take. "Unlike George Bush, we are appealing to angry people hard hit by the recession," says Finance Director Scott E. Mackenzie.

Still, $1 million is peanuts at this point. "You get into horrendous problems of having to raise $100,000 a day just to keep going," says Terry McAuliffe, finance director of Richard A. Gephardt's 1988 Presidential campaign.

Tsongas, who needs at least $2 million by Mar. 10, has hired Los Angeles developer Steven Moses to coordinate his California efforts. Supporters are also planning a fund-raiser at a popular Wall Street watering hole on Mar. 3--a modest one, since money isn't the only motive. "We're more interested in getting Wall Street people involved in knowing him," says organizer Stephen Paluszek, executive vice-president of M. A. Schapiro, an investment firm. Clinton, meanwhile, easily raked in $700,000 at a Feb. 10 New York fund-raiser.

It's a little late for getting to know potential donors, but Tsongas has little choice. "Paul's message is manna from heaven for business," says supporter George N. Hatsopoulos, president of Thermo Electron Corp. in Waltham, Mass. But, he adds, "the high-tech community looks with suspicion at any politician, especially Democrats." New Hampshire gave Tsongas credibility. But unless he can quickly turn that win into cash, he'll need a miracle to weather the rigors of March.

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