Ashcroft in 2000?

July 26, 1998|By Andrew J. Glass

WASHINGTON -- The one truth in presidential campaigns is . . . no one truth is to be found there. Rather, lots of forks in the political trail lead to either success or ruin.

Take the election of 1960. In the run-up to the campaign, there was one serious candidate on the Republican side -- Vice President Richard Nixon -- and five top-tier candidates among the Democrats: Adlai Stevenson and Sens. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, John Kennedy of Massachusetts and Stuart Symington of Missouri.

Early conventional wisdom among political insiders had Symington winning the nomination. For one thing, Symington looked the way Hollywood thought presidents should look. For another, his four rivals were thought to be weighed down by fatal flaws.

Stevenson had already lost twice. Humphrey was too liberal. Johnson was too much of a wheeler-dealer. Kennedy had a skimpy legislative record and was a Roman Catholic, something no president had ever been.

But conventional wisdom proved wrong.

A Gore-Tex race?

Now, 40 years later, there's one serious candidate on the Democratic side -- Vice President Al Gore -- and five potential top-tier candidates among the Republicans: Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, former Vice President Dan Quayle, publishing magnate Steve Forbes, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri.

Early conventional wisdom among political insiders rules out Mr. Ashcroft. A first-term senator, he is seen as too stiff to succeed on the stump. What's more, each of Mr. Ashcroft's four rivals has, in one way or another, already cut his teeth in a presidential campaign, a rite of passage that Republicans seem to value highly. (For Mr. Bush, admittedly, that rite has occurred only in a dynastic sense.)

Could conventional wisdom prove wrong again?

Son of the Bible Belt

Mr. Ashcroft, offering a pundit a ham sandwich and a pickle during an hour-long visit to his office, comes across as a staunch social and economic conservative. The son and grandson of Bible Belt ministers, he begins our lunch with a devout prayer.

When prodded, Mr. Ashcroft says that he believes the Bible interprets homosexuality to be a sin. "But," he adds, "homosexuality doesn't appear on any public policy agenda that I would want to impose. It's not the role of government to inquire into religion or into a person's private beliefs."

As a former two-term governor, Mr. Ashcroft does believe that the U.S. health care system needs reform; that, at a time of budget surpluses, federal taxes are too high and that Social Security needs to be strengthened through investments in equity markets, while protecting folks who want to retain their current deal.

The Iowa caucuses, where the road to the White House really begins, are still 18 months off. A lot could happen between now and then. But so long as Iowa still borders on Missouri come 2000, Mr. Ashcroft is likely to show up and, just maybe, do very well there.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington-based columnist for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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