Give Luck a Chance

September 29, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Sen. Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican, is hTC agreeably free of cloying coyness: ''I made up my mind a long time ago to run for president.'' His wife Wendy, an Asian-American who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, is on the board of visitors of the University of Iowa college of business administration and the board of directors of Iowa Beef Products, the largest employer in the state that begins the delegate selection process. ''This,'' says Senator Gramm of the coming campaign, ''is something we have been working at a long time.''

From 1992 through this fall's elections he will have spent 286 days on the road away from Washington and Texas. In the last 100 days of this autumn's campaign he will do events in 34 states. His computerized data base on people he has met since 1991 is at 164,454 names and expanding. Everyone on the list gets correspondence from him. This list includes 62,000 Iowans.

In 1988, 108,000 Iowans attended the Republican caucuses, which Bob Dole won with 34,000 votes. The CD-ROM data displaying the Gramm campaign's progress, needs and timetable fills the screen 11 times just listing the sites in Iowa and New Hampshire he has visited since 1991.

Senator Gramm says he failed third, seventh and ninth grades because of problems with reading and arithmetic. Today he is one of three senators with Ph.D.s (Pat Moynihan and Paul Wellstone are the others). He brings astonishing zest to the economics of presidential campaigning. ''I love raising money. I believe in what I'm doing and don't mind asking for help.''

He has a donor list of 88,000 names. Two million other people have contributed $109 million to the Republican Party in response to letters he has signed as chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. His presidential campaign will absorb some of that committee's staff, who will be sent to states where they worked on Senate campaigns.

He believes the ''money filter'' in 1995 will winnow the field of serious candidates. To be serious, he says, a candidate will need to have upward of $25 million before Iowa. Given the compression of the 1996 nominating season, delegate selection will happen too fast to allow anyone to raise large sums on the basis of early victories. Senator Dole can raise the early money. Many professionals doubt that Lamar Alexander, Dick Cheney or Dan Quayle can, or that Jack Kemp will want to.

After Iowa (February 12) and New Hampshire (February 20) come South Dakota (February 27), then the Colorado, Georgia and Maryland primaries on March 5. Mr. Gramm says, ''If I get there as a viable candidate, I'll win the nomination.'' Next comes New York (March 7), South Carolina (March 9) and then Super Tuesday (March 12), mostly in the South (Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas).

''There is no way,'' Senator Gramm says, ''there will be more than two people standing after Super Tuesday; in all probability there will be one.''

California has moved its primary, which is winner take all on the Republican side, from early June to March 26 so that it will no longer be too late to matter. But it still may be too late. More than 500 delegates will be chosen before the California primary.

Washington wisdom holds that Senator Gramm's slightly academic and grumpy demeanor and Southwestern twang are nearly insuperable obstacles to a successful candidacy. But to a growing number of conservatives, who chose Republican nominees, he sounds melodious because of what he says.

Congress' late-session legislative calendar imparted momentum to Mr. Gramm's courtship of the Republican nominating electorate. He was prominent in the fight over the crime bill (''If social spending stopped crime, this would be the safest country on earth'') and was among the most important impediments to Clintonism in health care.

No rival for the nomination is apt to match Mr. Gramm's rhetorical gift for assuring Republicans they need not fear from him another nightmare like the Bush administration. For example, ''The Founding Fathers would be stunned that in 1994 two consenting adults can engage in any voluntary behavior, with constitutional protection, other than industry and commerce, or owning private property.''

A successful candidacy requires money, ideas and luck. Senator Gramm probably will be the best financed and most conservative candidate in the Republican race. If luck really is the residue of design, Phil Gramm is poised for a run of luck.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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