Lugar Takes Serious Run At Presidency

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

March 04, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Casting his candidacy as an antidote to slick, feel-good politics, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar declared yesterday that he was running for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

True to his goal, there were few flashy phrases or catchy sound bites as the trim, silver-haired senator began pursuing his decades-old presidential dream.

With his wife, Charlene, two of his sons and four grandchildren behind him, he read a brief statement to reporters in the offices of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he chairs. This is "the right time" for him to be president, said Mr. Lugar, who plans to stage a formal announcement ceremony next month in Indiana.

"Let there be no doubt," he said. "I am running."

Mr. Lugar made no mention of President Clinton, but his remarks were a blunt indictment of Mr. Clinton's leadership.

"Our risks are too great, and our opportunities too many, not to have a president with the experience, the character and the resolve to lead this great nation at this important time," he said.

He also took implicit aim at Mr. Clinton's decision to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam era and join a 1969 anti-war protest outside the U.S. Embassy in London as a Rhodes scholar.

"When I was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford [from 1954 to 1956] and I first began to think about public service, I went to the American Embassy in London and enlisted in the United States Navy," he said.

In recent campaign forays to New Hampshire and in his remarks yesterday, Mr. Lugar is delivering a stern message of sacrifice. He wants to slash farm subsidies by $15 billion over five years, for example -- a calculated gamble that strikes at the heart of his party's farm-belt voter base -- to show that he is serious about balancing the federal budget.

"Those suggestions have not been greeted with raucous cheers," he remarked dryly.

He opposes a major tax cut at this time. Lowering taxes in the face of $200 billion annual federal budget deficits "is simply to increase the pain down the road," he says. His anti-tax-cut stance sets him apart from his Republican rivals and from his party's congressional leadership.

Mr. Lugar, 62, describes himself as a longtime opponent of abortion, and he agrees with other Republicans that it is time to end government programs that give preferences to women and minorities. But he says he does not intend to emphasize those divisive "wedge" issues.

As he starts his long-shot candidacy, he is stressing foreign policy, an area in which he has made his mark in Washington, but one that few voters seem preoccupied with today. After announcing his campaign plans, Mr. Lugar addressed a Washington think tank audience on the topic of "NATO Enlargement and U.S. Public Opinion."

His stubborn refusal to tailor his candidacy to more popular concerns is a puzzle to some Republican strategists, who have concluded that Mr. Lugar is naive about presidential politics even though he has openly acknowledged a desire to run for the White House since at least the early 1970s.

"I don't think that he gets it yet, what it's going to take," said a Republican campaign veteran who has met with Mr. Lugar. "What it means in terms of message development and how you have to talk -- not to be right, but to get elected -- I don't think he gets that yet."

Indeed, Mr. Lugar seemed almost shellshocked after his

appearance last month at a Republican presidential candidate "cattle show" in New Hampshire, a new experience for him after 30 years in politics. While the other candidates were trying to ignite the crowd with emotional rhetoric, Mr. Lugar delivered a substantive speech, heavy on foreign policy, that drew only tepid applause.

But after returning to Washington and consulting with his family and cadre of Indiana aides, he decided to plunge in anyway. And in a bow to the current fad in presidential politics, he went on CNN's "Larry King Live" call-in show Thursday night to reveal that he planned to run.

Mark Helmke, a former aide who is helping to direct the campaign, said Mr. Lugar is running for only one goal: the presidency.

"I don't know why you go through all this just to run for vice president or secretary of state," said Mr. Helmke, a Washington public relations executive.

Other key advisers include William D. Ruckelshaus, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a boyhood friend of Mr. Lugar's; and Mitch Daniels, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan and former Lugar aide who now heads Eli Lilly, an Indiana-based drug manufacturer.

Mr. Lugar is a rock-solid conservative who is widely admired in Washington as a serious-minded legislator. But he enters the race as a decided dark horse.

He concedes he'll have to scramble to catch up with two better-known fellow senators seeking the nomination, Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas. But Mr. Lugar seems determined to make a virtue out of shortcomings, including his reputation as a colorless campaigner and his limited fund-raising base.

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