THE GOSPEL OF SAINT PAUL

ONLY 12 HOURS EARLIER, Clinton had gone to bed feeling Our, depressed, Now New Hampshire was resurrecting him. "I'll feel like Lazarus if those exit polls hold up," he said when the latest numbers showed him running second to Paul Tsongas but far ahead of Kerrey, Harkin and Brown. His sense of relief bordered on the euphoric. Clinton rode up the elevator slapping the doors in triumph. The final tally--Tsongas 33 percent, Clinton 25, Kerrey 11, Harkin 10, Brown 8-was a sorry performance for the two senators from Washington. Clinton came into the suite. "You don't think I should congratulate Tsongas?" he said. "No," Hillary replied. "We're declaring victory. The whole idea is for us to set the agenda and force Tsongas to respond."

The next morning the Secret Service, symbol of a candidate's status, arrived to take Clinton under its wing, and his media corps had grown to 50 reporters. The new entourage gave him a surge of propulsion, but he also left New Hampshire carrying some heavy baggage. Tsongas was calling him a poll-driven panderer,and New Hampshire was sure to give Tsongas a pneumatic bounce. The steam rising from the Flowers and draft stories had obscured Clinton's economic message. His staff, as one member put it, had gone into a "Semi-panic," bunching up and riding shotgun with the candidate instead of planning more carefully for the next primaries.

The Clinton game plan called for skipping the Maine caucuses. Then two days after New Hampshire, Clinton found himself sucked into the state by what his staff wearily called the FOBs (Friends of Bill), old buddies but political amateurs who thought they were smarter than his handlers. Susan Thomases, an aggressive New York lawyer who was a close friend of Hillary, insisted that Clinton could win Maine. The candidate gamely parachuted in-only to wind up hanging from a tree.

Maine, it turned out, was an ideal battlefield for what Jerry Brown's man, Mike Ford, called "the Brownian rules of engagement." The state was abuzz with citizens' action groups: save-the-rain-forest folk, anti-nukeniks, clean-waterites, voters who would wear their Birkenstocks out in the snow to help someone who could speak their language. To Jacques Barzaghi, New Hampshire had been "so sad ... heavy ... apathetic"; Maine was "more alive." Brown barnstormed Rumford and Portland, Bangor and points Down East, attacking Tsongas's support for nuclear power plants, praising Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader, excoriating the power of The Incumbent Party in Washington and its DemoRepublican creeps. In Portland, Tsongas's and Clinton's people walked into a high-school gym and found themselves drowned out by voters with backpacks and voters in dreadlocks, most of them yelling "Jer-ry, Jer-ry." Brown was so broke after the show that he had to borrow money from his father to charter a plane on to Iowa. But Ford had been right. He came within one point of tying Tsongas, a moral victory by any count. Clinton finished a humiliating fourth.

Still, Clinton had been runner-up to Tsongas in New Hampshire, and that left the Kerrey camp facing its own exercise in humility. "We need inspiration," admitted Tad Devine. "We're going to kick this guy's ass, but we gotta figure out how." The campaign manager scooped up his delegate notes, his pocket calculator, his cellular phone and hopped a cab for the National Gallery in Washington. With Tony Corrado, his money juggler, trotting beside him, he paced through the galleries, past the Raphaels, past the Monets, looking for a way to save his candidate. Normal art lovers gaped as he strode by, returning calls on the cellular phone pressed to his ear. In the cafeteria, he spread out his notes on a table and looked at Corrado. "OK," he said. "How do we light up the board?"

They remembered the No-Win Scenario invented by Captain Kirk on "Star Trek": to compete with a computer that can't lose, you must reprogram the game. Corrado furiously scribbled on some notecards. They computed congressional districts. They punched numbers on a pocket calculator. In the end, they figured that Clinton would probably have 650 delegates after Super Tuesday. But if Kerrey could win South Dakota, take more than 15 percent of the vote in some of the Southern states, he could regain steam in Michigan and make up lost ground in New York, Pennsylvania and California. Corrado headed out and wangled a $150,000 line of credit from a bank in Nebraska. South Dakota came through in the nick of time: Kerrey easily won.

The next day aboard the Skypig, Kerrey's ancient Convair, the candidate studied a speech from Bob Shrum dismembering Clinton. It hit him on his evasiveness over the draft; it chivvied him for talking sacrifice and responsibility while showing so little himself, it said he could never win in the fall. Kerrey was keen for the attack. On the ground in Georgia Mike McCurry, his communications director, tried to cool him off. "If this doesn't kill Clinton, if he ends up the nominee, you're going to have a very lonely life in the U.S. Senate," McCurry said. Kerrey decided to forgo some of Shrum's sharper barbs. But at a press conference afterward, he said, "Taking responsibility for yourself means standing forward and saying, 'This is what I did.' Not blaming it on someone else." And as a parting insult to Clinton, he added, "I think he's going to get opened up like a soft peanut in November."

Commanding the party's right with his sober economic message, Paul Tsongas was in better shape to grapple with Clinton. In a single day, New Hampshire had thrust him out of his minivan and aboard a Boeing 737. But he was heading into unfamiliar territory now-the Great Plains, the West, the South-and his message laced good cheer with bitters: "I'm healthy, I'm popular, I have a plan and I'm no Santa Claus."

Down in Georgia, Hamilton Jordan, Tim Kraft and Bert Lance of the old Jimmy Carter camp advised Tsongas to play hard. They said Clinton was hurting; they thought Tsongas had the potential to score about 30 percent of the vote; they predicted that if Clinton could be kept below 50 percent, it would deeply embarrass the Arkansas governor in the supposedly friendly South. Tubby Harrison took a quick poll; he discovered that Tsongas could move up quickly to second place.

Sensing the danger, Clinton portrayed Tsongas as a Republican in a Democrat's clothing. What he longed for was a cleanly defined contest between Tsongas and himself. He thought they should be putting their economic ideas to the test. Tsongas, he said, was just a trickle-down economic mechanic: "I'm tired of what is coldblooded being passed off as courageous." Instead, inside his own camp, the professionals and the FOBs were squabbling; no one was making vital decisions on polls and ads. Exhausted from round-the-clock campaigning, he grew irritable. In Denver for yet another debate, he sat in his hotel boiling over in frustration. The message he was sending was "totally wrong." He hated rallies draped with bunting and flags, the phony music on his TV ads. "I'm getting killed in the free media and Tsongas is getting a free ride," he fumed. In the weeks after New Hampshire his team had been "miserably prepared." "We haven't had a strategy. We didn't have a clue. It's crazy to go on like this. There is no clear sense of where we're going. You know why? Because we don't know." At the debate, he turned on Tsongas and snapped, "No one can argue with you, Paul. You're perfect." "No," Tsongas replied. "I'm not perfect. Just honest." Score one sound bite for Saint Paul. Later, after another huddle with Ron Brown, Clinton lamely tried to explain what had set him off: "I just got so sick of that 'I'm no Santa Claus'." He had showed that his temper could hurt him.

The day before Junior Tuesday (including Georgia, Maryland, Colorado) Clinton woke in a foul mood. Gov. Zell Miller, Clinton's Georgia champion, called James Carville to say, "We're not bleeding, we're hemorrhaging." "The battle may be over," Clinton said between stops. It infuriated him that the op-ed pages were treating Tsongas as an economic wizard and calling him an economic rube. "We need to beat them up," he said. "This is war. My staff isn't playing offense."

That was the day the Clinton campaign hit bottom-and began bouncing back. Clinton gathered his team for a somber meeting in Atlanta. He told them that Hillary had been in "emotional free fall" the night before. He knew they could do better. "We can't fix it overnight, but we can fix it," he said. Throughout the day, the staff brainstormed changes. Should they do a Checkers speech? Too desperate. Should they go negative to the max on Tsongas? Careful. The trick was to distinguish Clinton's economic program from Tsongas's, not to develop another character problem. And no prairie populism-Harkin was dying of it. The turnaround wouldn't be easy. As George Stephanopoulos said, "People can talk for days about not having a message. The real truth is that he has had a ton of mud dropped on him and no one can see him."

Georgia saved Clinton. The first exit polls put him light-years ahead of Tsongas, and the candidate pumped his fist. He said he thought Southerners were more forgiving than others, that they had seen his sins yet still believed in his promise of economic redemption. When voters were asked why they hadn't voted for Tsongas, they said he was for big business. A wide grin spread across Clinton's face. The lesson: they could hit harder on "people-based economics," exploiting the open ground to Tsongas's left without falling into the populist trap. "We're going to run as Democrats," said Stephanopoulos. "You don't give up the best part of Clinton-responsibility-but you don't destroy the party." When the evening was over, Clinton had 57 percent in Georgia to Tsongas's 24. But Tsongas won big in Maryland, and victories in Washington and Utah had certified him as more than a regional candidate.

An instant mood swing uplifted the Clinton team. Back when it had looked as if Tsongas and Kerrey might march through Georgia, Sen. Sam Nunn had done very little to defend Clinton and Bert Lance had flirted with Tsongas. Now Carville told Stephanopoulos, "George, I'm gonna go up to the City Club, have a couple of martinis, a steak and make a list of everyone who tried to f- us in the last week." Clinton got on the phone to Zell Miller and thanked him fervently for standing by him. "You scared the hell out of me when you called yesterday," he said. Now he was born again: "I can turn this thing around."

Bob Kerrey, meanwhile, was beginning to realize that he couldn't. His campaign was so broke that the manager had shared a room in Phoenix with the baggage handler. On Junior Tuesday, Kerrey was shut out coast to coast. In Arizona, he summoned his counselors. Billy Shore intercepted Devine in the hotel hallway. "He wants out," Shore said. Kerrey asked Devine, "What do you think?"; the manager thought for a few milliseconds. Corrado's latest finance plan offered two choices for Super Tuesday: "low" and "skeletal." Even bare bones would cost $1 million, and they could never raise it. Looking up, Devine said two words: "You're toast."

FOR SUPER TUESDAY, Clinton issued Tsongas a rugged challenge: define yourself or I will do the job for you. Day after day he attacked Tsongas as a Reagan retread. The main argument between them, he said, was about economic fairness and growth, how to have both. Clinton offered opportunity with responsibility. Tsongas was offering only pain. At one stop after another, Clinton said, "We cannot put off fairness under the guise of promoting growth." It worked. "We're back on track," Paul Begala sang out. Hesitating for a second, Clinton said, "Yeah-I just don't want to win this from the left." To their amazement, Tsongas took too long to strike back at their retooled message. "We didn't telegraph it," chortled Carville. "We telephoned it. We faxed it. We satellited it. We wrapped it in a diaper, put it on a stork and flew it to him. The guy's having a hard time holding altitude."

Tsongas was indeed making mistakes. On the day after Junior Tuesday he refused to go on the morning talk shows; he lost a chance to tell Southern voters why they should pick him over homeboy Clinton on Super Tuesday. He decided to challenge Clinton in Florida and to spend huge sums on television in Texas and Tennessee, instead of saving money for Illinois and Michigan where his chances were far better. During one crucial three-day period in Florida before Super Tuesday, Tsongas dropped 21 points. Even before the primary, Harrison had tried to explain the problem to campaign manager Dennis Kanin. When Tsongas talked economics, it was as if he were building a new college, offering shiny new labs, classrooms and dormitories-then refusing to let anyone in. To the middle class he said no tax cut. For old people he had a cut in social security. For the farmers he had a gasoline tax. To the West and environmentalists, he offered more nuclear power plants. An honest program-suicidally honest.

Two days before Super Tuesday, Stephanopoulos handed Clinton a cellular phone. It was Tom Harkin, calling to announce his exit from the race. "The great news is we had a good night campaigning in Ohio," he said. "The bad news is when you're out of bucks you're out of gas." He didn't sound bitter, and Clinton was impressed. "You've been a helluva guy," Clinton told him. On Super Tuesday Clinton swept the South and border states. Tsongas picked up Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The man from Arkansas had 800 delegates, more than one third of the number he needed to clinch the nomination.

"Who are all these people?" asked Hillary Clinton as the Clinton entourage, swollen to the size of a small mob, swept into Chicago. "Get used to it," a reporter advised her. They were on a roll. Stan Greenberg's first polls gave them a "manageable seven-point lead" in Illinois, roughly the same in Michigan. The headquarters team from Little Rock set up a northern command post in the Palmer House Hilton and started talking tactics. In one secret memo, Greenberg warned them that "slick and smooth is the downside of charisma." Carville said that if he were Tsongas he'd go "straight to Slick Willie: tell me what you want to hear and I'll tell you what Bill Clinton will say." They were ready for that. Ron Brown was telling them that if Clinton won the New York primary, the Clinton camp and the DNC could integrate and start working on the convention.

But it wouldn't be quite that easy. Two days before the primary, the Clintons gathered their advisers to prep for the final Illinois debate. That morning The Washing-ton Post had published a story about Hillary Clinton's law firm, noting that it did significant work for the Arkansas state government, though she did not share profits from the firm's state business.

"I think Tsongas is going to come at you mean and hard," Hillary said.

"Hit him hard," Begala said, smacking his fist into his palm. "I can't believe someone who lobbied for Drexel Burnham would lecture you about your wife."

"That's good. That's really good," Hillary added.

"If you hear the word 'Hillary,' don't let him finish," said Stephanopoulos.

Then Carville, who liked to throw in ideas at odd moments, suggested that Clinton support the equal-rights amendment in the debate. Clinton looked at his wife. "I think you've got to lay the groundwork for it," she said. "Give a speech on it, but I don't think you ought to drop it in a debate." The candidate glanced around the room.

"I'll try not to screw it up."

"Defend my honor," Hillary said, and she laughed.

On the set that night, Tsongas didn't throw the bomb-Jerry Brown did. He charged Clinton with funneling money to his wife's law firm for state business. Clinton exploded on cue. He called it a "lying accusation" and said Brown wasn't fit to "be on the same platform with my wife." He came back into the holding room steaming but pleased with the exchange. "He'll say anything, anything. I figure in a deal like that, no one remembers the specific words. They just remember if you stuck up for your wife."

From the beginning, Clinton had counted on Illinois to clinch the nomination; when the first exit polls showed him walloping Tsongas, Begala said, "Goodbye, Saint Paul." Tubby Harrison's last poll had led Tsongas to believe that he had a chance of winning Illinois. Now, as he flew from Chicago to Hartford, he considered his future. At the hotel, he invited Kanin to his room. Should he get out? They had already borrowed against April's matching funds. He wanted to find out how deeply he was in debt. Then he flew home. In Lowell, Kanin played devil's advocate: they could scrap the plane, drop TV advertising, play New York on free media. Tsongas thought the best he could do was to stop Clinton from getting the nomination on the first ballot. Later that evening Kanin returned. They discussed whether Tsongas could get back in if he withdrew and then Clinton self-destructed. Possibly. Finally, about 10 p.m., Tsongas said, "Let's do it tomorrow."