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POLITICAL BRIEFING

By Times staff writers

POLITICAL PALS--Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas have been saying a lot of nice things about each other on the Democratic presidential trail, and the convoluted politics of primary expectations helps explain why.

The good vibes between the two were most apparent during the Dec. 15 nationally televised debate among the six major Democratic presidential rivals, when Clinton’s proposal to provide college scholarships to those willing to commit themselves to a national service program came under attack. Tsongas jumped into the fray to say that the other candidates were mischaracterizing Clinton’s plan. Over the last few weeks, meanwhile, Clinton frequently has gone out of his way to praise Tsongas. At one stop in New Hampshire, he called him “the only candidate other than me who has really thought about what he would do” if elected.

The two men seem genuinely to like each other, and they do agree on many issues. But in politics, friendship is seldom that simple.

Clinton obviously would like to win New Hampshire, but his bottom-line goal in the state’s Feb. 18 primary is to make sure that neither Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin nor Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey gains a victory and builds momentum for the delegate-rich primaries of March. Tsongas, whose Massachusetts home is just a short drive from New Hampshire, is a local favorite there but has little prospects elsewhere, so boosting him is low-cost insurance for the Clinton forces.

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