Dark horse takes on Bush, Dole

January 17, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In the past six presidential elections there has been a Bush or a Dole on the Republican ticket, and some people think there should be one of each in 2000. But New Hampshire's Sen. Bob Smith thinks there should be a Smith at the top of that ticket. Jay Leno thinks that is funny.

When Mr. Smith, 57, announced his candidacy, Mr. Leno wondered whether Mr. Smith's running mate would be named John Doe. But Mr. Smith's wife, Mary Jo, thinks his candidacy is providential.

They met in college when trying out for parts in a play. "It was `She Stoops to Conquer.' " says Mr. Smith, "I forget who wrote it." (Oliver Goldsmith did, senator.) Years later, when he was teaching history to junior and senior high school students and running a real estate business, long before he went into politics, Mary Jo told him that when she first saw him she thought: There is my husband, the father of my children and a president of the United States.

Two out of three, so far. Elected to the Senate in 1990 after three terms in the House, in 1996 Mr. Smith was barely re-elected, 49 percent to 46 percent. But, he says, he ran 10 points ahead of Mr. Dole while President Clinton carried the state, 49-39.

Besides, his re-election was providential. The night before the election Mary Jo went to a Manchester convent and promised to convert to her husband's Catholicism if he won and could continue in the Senate as a pro-life crusader.

Right-wing focus

It is almost theoretically impossible to get to the right of his voting record in Congress, where he is one of the strongest advocates of building defenses against ballistic missiles. And he knows how to serve red meat to right-wingers:

"If the Senate were to reject a pro-life nominee of mine to the Supreme Court, I would send up another pro-life nominee. And another. And another. I might even send Robert Bork's name back to the Senate."

He takes a page from the script used by the 1996 winner of New Hampshire's primary, Pat Buchanan, when he says a 2000 issue should be "sovereignty" -- the excessive entanglement of the United States with multinational organizations.

Domestically, too, he is somewhat Buchananesque. He hopes to appeal to "Reagan Democrats," meaning blue-collar conservatives, by blaming free trade (which he calls a "misnomer") for the plight, as he sees it, of America's "manufacturing base."

But with consumer confidence high and unemployment low (4.3 percent), with auto sales rising and commodities' prices (especially oil) falling, Mr. Smith will need an issue other than hard times. And here is the social conservatives' conundrum:

How do they make a moral appeal to a country that continues to produce high poll ratings for President Clinton? Mr. Smith says Mary Jo thinks "the polls are being taken on Saturday night as people come out of Hooters." If not, will the country respond warmly to being told that it is sunk in moral decay?

Here is one of Mr. Smith's conundrums: New Hampshire is home to only four-tenths of 1 percent of the nation's voters, but what they lack in numbers they sometimes make up in surliness. If Mr. Smith's candidacy causes other candidates to de-emphasize New Hampshire's primary, which normally is a significant economic boost to the state, the voters will not be amused.

That is not yet a pressing worry. Mr. Smith, a rumpled, informal bear of a man, is the largest potential president (6 feet 6 inches, 255 pounds) but he is casting a small shadow, with 4 percent support, trailing Elizabeth Dole (31) and George W. Bush (30) in the most recent New Hampshire poll. Never mind, says Mr. Smith, by the time New Hampshire votes, he will be trailing clouds of glory as the conqueror of Iowa.

Financed, he hopes, by getting a million conservatives to buy $20 "shares" in his candidacy, he plans to be the first president elected from New Hampshire since Franklin Pierce in 1852.

In presidential politics, as in baseball, this is the hot stove league season: Everyone is undefeated and hopeful. Mr. Smith may be the darkest horse in the race, but not darker than, say, the New York Mets were in January 1969. In this dark time in national politics, an engaging purity surrounds a candidate's high probability of futility.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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