Ashcroft could be a contender

March 26, 1998|By Jeff Jacoby

WHEN John Ashcroft, Missouri's junior senator, says he is "considering" a run for president, he wants it understood that all he is doing is -- considering.

"When you speak the truth about your intentions in this business, it's taken for granted that you are communicating by euphemism," he says. '' 'Considering' or 'testing the waters' usually means 'flat-out running.' But I have not decided.''

Lessons learned

Mr. Ashcroft knows a bit about running, having twice been elected Missouri's attorney general, then twice elected its governor. But running for president is not like running for anything else. Ask Mr. Ashcroft what Republicans ought to learn from Bob Dole's disastrous campaign in 1996, and he doesn't hesitate.

''The No. 1 lesson is: Don't become trapped in the Senate mind set.'' Senators tend to focus on the ''doable,'' Mr. Ashcroft argues, while the presidency embraces the ''noble.'' He compares legislating in the Senate to a demolition derby.

''A lot of proposals smash into each other, and eventually you assemble something -- a part of this one, a part of that one -- that you can drive out of the Senate.'' Mired in the politics of cobbling something together, senators find it difficult to craft a more uplifting, ennobling message.

Maybe. But a narrow ''Senate mind set'' was not Mr. Dole's fatal flaw. It was that he campaigned on themes, especially tax cuts and smaller government, belied by his entire career. And a ''Senate mind set'' is not likely to hobble the other men now testing the Republican presidential waters, since none of them -- Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, George W. Bush, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle -- is a senator.

No, the real lesson of the Dole failure is that to win, Republicans must nominate a candidate who believes deeply in important conservative principles and can communicate them effectively and appealingly.

A Reaganesque prescription? Yes. Is there a Reagan in the field? No. Fortunately for the GOP, it isn't necessary to have Mr. Reagan's flair or charisma to connect with Mr. Reagan's voters.

Mr. Ashcroft knows he is a long shot. But he brings one asset to the presidential marathon no other candidate can claim: He is a born-and-bred son of the Christian right, the only Republican eyeing the White House who belongs to the most unified element of the Reagan coalition.

Likely voters

It is hard to overestimate the importance of religious/social conservatives to the modern GOP. In 1994, the year Republicans seized control of Congress, exit polls showed that evangelical Christians were one of the two groups most likely to vote (the other was gun owners).

In Mr. Ashcroft, social conservatives will see one of their own. He is a devout fundamentalist (Assemblies of God), a son and grandson of Pentecostal preachers, a nondrinking, nonsmoking, nondancing gospel singer. He has been described as ''what Richie Cunningham might have become had he grown up and found religion'' -- an all-American sort (tinkers with old cars, football scholarship to Yale, craves Burger King) with deep roots in what political consultants like to call the ''faith community.''

At the same time he is a talented politician who has always known how to keep his private beliefs private.

''At his first inaugural ball,'' the Kansas City Star reported, ''he deftly avoided embarrassment by playing 'The Missouri Waltz' on the piano, rather than calling attention to his religious habits by refusing to dance when the music swelled.''

This early in the political cycle, no Republican has a lock on the Christian conservatives. Mr. Ashcroft should be a natural for their support, but in national campaigns, should doesn't win votes. Strategy, message, money, advertising and obsessive interest in New Hampshire do.

Like Mr. Reagan, whom he deeply admires, Mr. Ashcroft exudes the air of a man whose principles are fixed, and who is disinclined to change them because a consultant tells him to. After the Dole and Bush debacles, Republicans might find that a refreshing change.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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