Gramm's uphill battle in N.H. 'I wear well': Resigned to a charisma deficit, the Texas senator is relying heavily on another commodity -- ideological consistency.

Sun Journal

January 19, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DERRY, N.H. -- Here in Robert Frost country, Phil Gramm is stopping by a Chamber of Commerce breakfast on a snowy morning.

At no less than the Promises to Keep restaurant, the bareknuckle presidential candidate takes a seat before the handful of residents who've come to see him -- and launches into soft, velvety verse:

"Whose woods these are I think I know," he begins, reciting one of the classic Frost poems. "His house is in the village though;/He will not see me stopping here/To watch his woods fill up with snow."

It is one of those surreal campaign moments. For while the scrappy Texas senator is truly fond of poetry -- he has been known to start bellowing "Horatius at the Bridge" without much provocation -- one would hardly suspect him of possessing a poetic, lyrical soul.

On the contrary, his presidential campaign, all about budgets and taxes and numbers, contains about as much poetry as a government procurement form. And Mr. Gramm himself, with his tired shoulders and thick-as-oatmeal Southern drawl, casts an aura that is less than heroic.

Such lack of drama and personal magnetism may explain why the balanced-budget hawk, whose conservative, small-government message is right in step with today's Republican sensibilities, is struggling to win even a top runner-up spot in the nation's first presidential primary, which takes place here next month.

Those who have followed Mr. Gramm's 20-year political career ++ believe that the personality factor has much to do with his uphill battle on the national stage.

At a campaign stop at a sandwich shop in Portsmouth recently, the candidate sat down with seven local businessmen and plunged into a steaming bowl of chowder, leaving an awkward silence at the table until one of the men finally started up a conversation. One can only imagine how the gregarious Bill Clinton would have held forth with the group, sharing their pain as well as their lunch table.

"There are two kinds of people in life," Mr. Gramm says in an interview. "There are people who make great first impressions, and there are people who wear well. I'm one of these people that, I don't always make a great first impression, but I wear well. Once people get to know me, they like me more, the more they know me."

Still, resigned to a charisma deficit, he is relying heavily on another commodity -- ideological consistency.

"I know who I am, and I know what I believe in," he says.

Democrats and Republicans alike say this commitment to conservative principles made his career in Texas.

"People don't necessarily love him, but they know where he's coming from," says Texas Democratic consultant George Christian, former press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "He is tenacious and predictable. Politically, sometimes that works. It works here."

It worked mostly because of a pivotal event that sealed Mr. Gramm's image as a politician who stood for something: his change of party in 1983.

Elected to the House in 1978 as a conservative Democrat -- after a dismal defeat in a Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen two years earlier -- the one-time economics professor was always knocking heads with his party's leadership.

In 1981, he not only secretly collaborated with the GOP in fashioning President Ronald Reagan's budget, he acted as a sort of mole, reporting to the White House news from the Democrats' budget meetings. Eventually, after being kicked off the Budget Committee, he decided to change parties.

Although he could have remained in office after switching parties as many conservative Democrats did last year, he resigned his House seat. In the special election that followed, he ran for his old seat as a Republican. He won, and a year later, scooted up to the Senate with ease.

"He pulls off this risky, noble move, in which he says, 'I'm going to give up power and subject myself to re-election because I really believe this,' " says Sandy Kress, a former Bentsen campaign manager and Democratic chairman for Dallas County. Boom! The guy gets lifted off into space. It's been hard since then for anybody to lay a hand on him."

Mr. Gramm says the episode demonstrates that he is a man who will stand on principle. As further evidence, he cites his firm opposition to the Clinton health care plan, a reform plan that he said at the time would pass only over his "cold, dead body." And he points to his shepherding of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill, a deficit-reduction mechanism enacted in 1985 but later repealed after limited success.

Since his earliest campaign, he has been a champion of free-market economics, the return of power to the states and traditional values on social issues.

But some take exception to his declaration of principle and ideological consistency, noting that for all his budget-cutting talk -- "spending cuts" has become his mantra -- he is at the top of the list when it comes to raking in federal money for his state.

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