This Mr. Smith goes to New Hampshire

February 24, 1999|By David M. Shribman

WOLFEBORO, N.H — WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- With his avuncular smile, his shopworn homilies, his lanky first-baseman gait and his rusticated innocence, he hardly looks the part. But within a year it may be clear: For Republicans seeking the GOP's 2000 presidential nomination, Bob Smith will be the most dangerous man alive.

Not because Mr. Smith, the New Hampshire senator who officially entered the nomination fight here last week, has much of a chance to be president. But because he has almost no chance to be president.

Almost everyone else in the Republican field -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush, former Red Cross president and Cabinet officer Elizabeth H. Dole, Sen. John McCain, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, Rep. John Kasich -- is at least a remotely plausible GOP nominee.

That very sense of plausibility will restrain all of them, blunt their edges, soften their appeals. They will not want to be too this, or not enough that.

Not so Mr. Smith. He's running for president, but without the passive restraints that will buckle all the other Republicans firmly in the seats of the SUVs they will need to push through the icy slush of Iowa and New Hampshire.

There is nowhere in these two states -- so beautiful to the eye when they are draped with snow, yet so treacherous under foot -- that the GOP presidentials will not go in those SUVs. But there are plenty of places in conversation they won't go, and one of them is abortion.

But not Mr. Smith. He'll go there -- and by doing so, he'll drag every last one of the Republicans there, too. He's already campaigned 61 days in New Hampshire, another 45 in Iowa.

But Mr. Smith, rotund and outrageous enough to qualify as the GOP presidential field's gift to political cartoonists, will also go to every remote nook and cranny of American conservatism. No plausibility restraints on him. Just plain Bob, out on the road, living on the land, planting land mines for the rest of the Republicans.

The other day, in a school gym festooned with banners, there were early, edifying glimpses of how Mr. Smith might shape the race: "Like Jefferson, I want to start with the right to life," he said, saying that 35 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade was "immoral," "unconscionable" and "below the dignity of a great nation." Count on Mr. Smith to make that point at the presidential debates. Watch Mr. Bush squirm.

"I will nominate only -- and you need to know this -- pro-life justices to the Supreme Court." This is a state accustomed to big pledges; for decades every New Hampshire governor has taken "the pledge" not to impose a sales or income tax. Mr. Smith will have plenty of opportunities to trap all the GOP candidates into making this new pledge on television. Watch Mr. McCain squirm.

"I am not a leap-year conservative, jumping out of the grass every four years saying, `Look at me, I'm conservative.' " If the Republican nomination fight were a yacht race, many of the candidates -- who were moderates before they converted, more to realism than to conservatism -- could be said to be tacking right. Watch Alexander squirm.

"Washington, D.C., the City of Takers." Mr. Smith is no habitue of Embassy Row and is a stranger to the salons of Georgetown. He isn't even the most influential Senator Smith in Washington (the invitations go to the GOP senator from Oregon, Gordon Smith). So he won't mind carpet-bombing the capital, criticizing its insider culture, lampooning its antiseptic respectability. Watch Mrs. Dole squirm.

Think of the bountiful harvest of only one day on the trail as Smith Effect Storms. There will be more.

He'll remind Republicans that he opposed normalizing diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Watch Mr. McCain squirm. He'll remind Republicans here that he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Watch the free-traders squirm.

He may be running a Gilbert and Sullivan campaign, heavy on the sentimental, more from the heart than from the head. But all of that, to choose the most beloved Republican word of the decade, empowers Mr. Smith. He isn't president now and probably won't be on Jan. 20, 2001. So he has nothing to lose in a field where his rivals have everything to lose. He's proof, too, that polls do matter:

There's real power in having the support of only 2 percent of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters. It's the power of freedom.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

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