Fiasco in Louisiana: Gramm struggles to survive CAMPAIGN 1996

February 09, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Sen. Phil Gramm, ever accentuating the positive, dealt with his stunning defeat at the hands of Pat Buchanan here Tuesday night by looking ahead. What he professed to see was strength in the key campaign element that failed him here -- grass-roots organization.

His loss in the Louisiana caucuses that allegedly had been rigged for him, he said, ''does not change the fact that we have a strong grass-roots organization in Iowa,'' site of the next caucuses Monday night. But he supposedly had one here too, and it did him little good against the Buchanan onslaught, fueled by religious groups attracted to his unequivocal opposition to abortion.

For all of Senator Gramm's assurances that he is just as much against abortion as Mr. Buchanan is, in Louisiana he could not generate the same zeal among the Christian voters. According to a New Orleans Times-Picayune exit poll, 62 percent of Buchanan voters identified themselves as part of ''the religious right,'' to only 49 percent of Gramm voters.

For all the perceived strength of the Gramm organization in Louisiana, it simply did not deliver. Charles Black, the campaign's chief strategist, had reported before the vote that the Gramm operation had 25,000 supporters ''committed and recommitted'' to attend the caucuses. If so, the effort to get them out was an abysmal failure. The total turnout for all three candidates -- longshot Alan Keyes was the third -- was only 21,500, about 5 percent of the state's registered Republicans.

The dimensions of that failure are magnified by the fact that the Louisiana caucuses, held for the first time in an ostensible effort to give the South early influence in the nomination process, were made to order for a well-organized campaign. There were only 42 sites around the state and they were not well publicized. A campaign organization that knew where they were and had a strong get-out-the-vote operation should have waltzed to victory.

Mr. Gramm is now suggesting that his strong organization in Iowa will be able to succeed there in caucuses that will take place in about 2,100 precincts with a full field of nine candidates, not just three as in Louisiana. But Sen. Bob Dole has Gov. Terry Branstad and the state party organization with him. And multimillionaire Steve Forbes continues to pour his fortune into television ads in Iowa, some of them directed at Senator Gramm.

Buchanan's boost

And then there is Pat Buchanan. The big psychological boost that Mr. Gramm boasted he would get out of Louisiana has gone instead to Mr. Buchanan. Iowa is another state heavily populated by anti-abortion political activists. There is little reason to expect Senator Gramm will fare better with them in Iowa; rather, the Louisiana defeat figures to raise concerns among his Iowa supporters about his ability to win the nomination.

When Mr. Gramm last August tied Senator Dole for first in a large party straw poll in Iowa, he credited his superior organization. He predicted he would run at least second to Mr. Dole in the Iowa caucuses and make it a two-man race for the nomination. But the entry of Mr. Forbes and his money changed all that.

Senator Gramm soon fell to third in the Iowa polls, behind Messrs. Dole and Forbes. His strategists increasingly looked to the Louisiana caucuses to give him the early 1996 lead in delegates, predicting he would win ''most, if not all'' of the 21 to be selected. Instead, he got only eight, to 13 for Mr. Buchanan.

The senator tried to find a silver lining in the dark cloud, noting that now at least, he had ''eight more delegates than Bob Dole.'' But there is no silver lining in what befell him in Louisiana. Only a highly unlikely comeback in Iowa will erase the image of a campaign in its death throes.

Mr. Gramm is nothing it not dogged. He insists he is in a ''marathon'' and he will persevere. But failure to win dries up campaign contributions, and the senator himself has said that the best friend you can have in politics is money. If so, his Louisiana defeat coupled with another poor showing in Iowa could send his best friend out the door.

Organization, which Mr. Gramm has always claimed to be his strong suit, won't be much without the means to pay for it. From the start, he has counted on organization to survive expected early bumps on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire and get him into the supposedly friendlier Southern primaries to follow. But it's beginning to look as if no amount of organization can sell this particular candidate.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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