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A Tsongas readies for a return to Washington

September 3, 2007 | 10:00 am

If experience counts, Democratic voters who Tuesday will pick their party's nominee --- and the likely eventual winner --- for a vacant U.S. House seat in Massachusetts have an embarrassment of riches.

Three of the Democratic candidates serve in the state legislature. A fourth sits on the city council for Lowell, the district's major city. But based on the key indicators --- the polls, money raised, endorsements --- the leading vote-getter in the primary will be the one Democrat on the ballot who has never held elective office: Niki Tsongas.

Tsongas brings this to the race --- she is widow of Paul Tsongas, who once represented the district, then became a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and established a national profile when he ran a surprisingly strong race for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. He won that year's New Hampshire primary. But a cheeky politician from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, declared himself the "Comeback Kid" because he finished second in the contest, and he wore down the underfunded Tsongas as the nomination battle proceeded.

The House district in Massachusetts opened up when longtime Democratic incumbent Martin Meehan quit Congress to become head of a local university.

Niki Tsongas has worked as a dean for a community college in the district, but she only actually moved back into it earlier this year. Her husband passed away more than 10 years ago (he died of cancer, about a month shy of his 56th birthday). Still, his reputation remains sterling among his former constituents. And a recent Boston Globe story reported that his 61-year-old widow "has been able to largely dismiss questions of her lack of elected experience by touting her last name."

And how exactly does she tout it? Well, here's a delicious detail from the Globe piece: "On the campaign trail, the candidate has been handing out ice cream at 'Get the Tscoop on Tsongas' events..."

Her rival Democrats, having paid dues in the political trenches, are understandably frustrated. And one --- Eileen Donoghue, the Lowell city council member --- has made some headway in polls by hammering away at the obvious gap in Niki Tsongas' resume.

The Democratic victor, as we noted earlier, almost assuredly is on a path to Washington. Republicans are picking a nominee Tuesday for the district's Oct. 16 special election, but Massachusetts is perhaps the most reliably Democratic state in the nation. Not only are its two senators and 10 House members all Democrats, but the last time the state sent any Republican to Capitol Hill was in 1994.

-- Don Frederick