Gramm drops out, criticizes Buchanan Senator failed to secure wide conservative support

Campaign 1996

February 15, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Phil Gramm pulled the plug on his American dream yesterday, reluctantly ending a three-year quest for the presidency with a parting shot at Patrick J. Buchanan, the upstart challenger who wooed away much of Mr. Gramm's support among socially conservative Republicans.

The Texas senator declined at this point to throw his support behind the party's front-runner, Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader he has long criticized as too willing to compromise with moderates and Democrats.

But Mr. Gramm made clear his contempt for Mr. Buchanan, the columnist and former Nixon and Reagan aide who has bolted past him in the race to become the favorite of the Republican party's conservative wing.

"Our party cannot follow the path of protectionism; it is a dagger aimed at everything we have fought for in the world," Mr. Gramm said in a reference to Mr. Buchanan's call for the United States to pull out of free-trade agreements that ease trade barriers. "Pat Buchanan's stand on protectionism is at odds with our party's commitment to job creation and to freedom."

"There always has been a recessive gene in the American character that has found protectionism appealing," he added in a second swipe at Mr. Buchanan. "But we've always been wise enough to reject it."

Speaking in a packed Senate committee room with wildly cheering Gramm staff members, the Texas Republican said that he was disappointed but philosophical about his poor showings in the Louisiana and Iowa caucuses. He became convinced, he said, that he had no chance to win the Republican nomination.

"When the voters speak, I listen -- especially when the voters are saying someone else's name," Mr. Gramm quipped, reverting to the good-natured folksiness that was sometimes lost in his combative campaign style.

Mr. Gramm, 53, said many of his supporters in states such as Maryland, where he has been well-organized, had pleaded with him to continue his campaign, in case the front-runners falter. But his early departure allows the two-term senator to focus on re-election plans. A contender from a strong field of Democrats awaits him in Texas.

Few would have predicted that Mr. Gramm would be the first major Republican contender to be knocked out of the nomination fight.

Thanks to years of preparation, an extensive grass-roots organization and a potent fund-raising operation, he had long been considered Mr. Dole's toughest rival in the presidential field. In fact, their competition had become one of the political dramas of Washington in the new Republican era, as Mr. Gramm tried to push Mr. Dole further to the right in legislative battles.

And while the two jockeyed for position on Capitol Hill, Mr. Gramm was using his ample war chest to try to beat the front runner in straw polls throughout the country, hoping that symbolic victories would give his campaign momentum.

But the Gramm campaign faltered, by its own reckoning, because the senator was never fully embraced by the social conservatives he had been counting on to offset the Main Street establishment crowd believed to favor Mr. Dole.

His legislative record is that of a fiscal conservative: Mr. Gramm has been known as a budget-cutter and deficit-fighter since the early 1980s, when he deserted the Democratic Party after backing Reagan spending and tax cuts. In recent years, Mr. Gramm broadened his agenda to include social issues, like welfare reform.

His loss to Mr. Buchanan in Louisiana, a neighboring state that until the last minute Mr. Gramm had boasted he would win, proved a mortal wound, according to Mr. Gramm's pollster, Linda DiVall.

"If someone wants a single-issue candidate, I'm not that candidate," Mr. Gramm said. "I'm an economic conservative, and I'm a social conservative. I'm both. Maybe in this campaign, there was not a market for both."

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