Gramm wins La. straw poll for president

January 08, 1995|By New York Times News Service

BATON ROUGE, LA. — *TC BATON ROUGE, La. -- Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas overwhelmingly won a presidential popularity poll yesterday among Louisiana Republicans that may be more a testament to his letter-writing abilities than a reflection of his prospects for the White House in 1996.

Mr. Gramm received 902 votes to 150 for his nearest rival, Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator. None of the others had more than 100 votes.

In the larger political scheme, the early presidential preferences of Republicans in Louisiana -- a state that has long been dominated by Democratic politics -- are virtually meaningless. More than anything else, it was a way for the state party to attract national attention and raise money at a state convention that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Still, these straw polls have become a rite of passage for presidential contenders. So this, the first of about a half-dozen such events in coming months, set off jockeying among Republican contenders, most of whom are preparing their official announcements or are in the final throes of deciding whether to run.

One who unquestionably took yesterday's contest seriously was Gramm, who was so determined to win the support of delegates at the Louisiana Republican Party convention here, in his home region, that he inundated the 1,700 delegates with as many as a half-dozen cards and letters and phone calls from his supporters.

He also prevailed on state party officials to schedule him as the keynote speaker immediately before the voting began and persuaded them to let Sen. John McCain of Arizona give a speech that included a plug for the senator from Texas.

Though Jim Norris, a banker from Monroe, backed Mr. Gramm yesterday, he rolled his eyes at the notion of the poll and said he might well vote for someone else in the primary, more than a year from now.

"It's like figuring out who I'm going to vote for in 2040," he said. "It has nothing to do with anything."

Mr. Gramm saw more at stake than that. "There's one thing that can't be disputed. We won the first battle in this long war," he said.

Knowing that Mr. Gramm had the edge, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, another presidential hopeful, made a point of saying that he was not even trying to compete.

Mr. Alexander, who came in third, with 58 votes, flew to Baton Rouge to speak Friday night at a state party dinner but did not stay to woo supporters yesterday. "In that contest, I'm not competing," he said of the straw poll. "I have other things to do."

Mr. Buchanan was also there and began attacking the Republican field with the same brand of tart-tongued comments that bruised President George Bush during the 1992 primaries.

Making it plain that he sees himself as the most qualified prospective candidate, Mr. Buchanan said of Mr. Gramm: "I was going to summits with Richard Nixon when some of those guys were still teaching economics at Texas A&M."

Mr. Buchanan said he was far from deciding about running, but his supporters were passing out freshly minted "Buchanan '96" buttons.

Some better-known contenders, most notably Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate majority leader, sat out the event, although Mr. Dole drew 28 votes and at least one Dole operative was spotted making the rounds here.

Jack F. Kemp, the former housing secretary, and Alan Keyes, a former State Department official, each drew 36 votes. Former Vice President Dan Quayle received 17 votes, and six others in the contest drew fewer than 10 each.

This convention attracted Republicans of all stripes, including David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman who won national attention for his unsuccessful bids for statewide office. Mr. Duke was milling about at a reception for Mr. Buchanan.

"I'm going to vote for him," Mr. Duke said. "He's the most conservative of the lot."

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