Paul Tsongas, Bill Clinton's most formidable rival in the Democratic presidential primaries in 1992, has so soured on the president that he is strongly encouraging the notion of a third-party candidacy in 1996. And he thinks that Gen. Colin Powell might make the best candidate.

After months of refraining from any harsh criticism of Clinton, Tsongas has embarked on a personal campaign in which he argues that the president not only lacks moral conviction but is pursuing policies like tax cuts for the middle class that are irresponsible."The president's biggest problem is a lack of moral authority," Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview last week. "And if he had taken positions that were clearly principled and thusly could occupy the high ground against a Republican challenger, there would be a grudging respect that I think would serve him much better."

The 53-year-old Tsongas, who insists that he will not run for president in 1996, said the Democrats' lack of commitment to reducing the federal deficit and the Republicans' embrace of a right-wing social agenda has left a political vacuum that cries out for a candidate of Powell's character.

He laid out arguments for a third party in a memorandum sent earlier this month to news organizations.

Tsongas said he had sent the memorandum to Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but had not spoken to him.

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Powell, who has not stated his party affiliation, is generally assumed to be a Republican because he has worked for Republican presidents. He has not said whether he is interested in running for president in 1996, but he has not discouraged speculation.

Powell is immensely popular and has kept visible through frequent speaking appearances.

Tsongas, who emphasized deficit reduction in the '92 primary campaign, said he was "horrified" by an assortment of middle-class tax cuts that Clinton proposed in a speech the week before last.

"The president's speech last Thursday was pretty much the end of the road for me in terms of not only the middle-class tax cut revisited by the specific reference to Social Security," he said. "I now see Bill Clinton as a direct threat to my children's generation."

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