Utah's singular senator embarks on an adventure

Of a White House bid, Hatch admits, "Some people think it's crazy'

June 25, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Orrin Hatch's quirky behavior has been drawing the attention of his Senate colleagues for some time now.

Though still the image of Mormon rectitude, the Utah Republican has been among the most unabashed members of Congress in his pursuit of face time on the Sunday morning talk shows. Eyebrows raise at his late-life career as a songwriter who is occasionally featured at CD recording sessions in Nashville. And thanks to his odd-couple alliance with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, Hatch has been all but excommunicated from the conservative wing of his party, which had once labeled him a rising star.

So Hatch's disclosure this week that he is planning a last-minute, long-shot bid for the White House is seen as part of a broader pattern: a response to feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and maybe, at age 65, in need of a little adventure.

"The politician's equivalent of buying a red sports car," one Republican leadership aide called it.

Hatch readily acknowledges the skepticism.

"Some people think it's crazy," he said in an interview. "I just hope I don't screw it up too bad."

In a sense, it's no surprise that Hatch would contemplate a presidential race. Many, if not most, senators fancy themselves White House material, and Hatch has maintained a high profile for most of his 23 years in the Senate.

With lead roles on both the Judiciary Committee and the Labor, Health and Education Committee, his fingerprints are all over major legislation in those areas. He has sometimes been mentioned as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court.

"From the day he got here, I always figured he'd run for president sometime," said Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican. "But it seemed like there was always somebody else in the way."

Bush far ahead

What's hard to figure is why Hatch sees the timing as better now. Though it's still early by historical standards, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas holds a commanding lead in the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Bush is running up to 50 points ahead of his nearest rival in the latest national polls -- and attracting much of the available campaign cash and volunteers along the way.

But Hatch suggested that the 52-year-old Texas governor, now in only his fifth year in elective office, might well falter at some point.

"I'm not about to undermine George W. Bush," Hatch said. "It's his to lose. But I'm worried, though. He has good experience for as long as he's been in politics, but he doesn't have the experience that I have with regard to the full range of things that come up in the office of president."

As for the 10 other Republican White House hopefuls, including two of his Senate colleagues -- John McCain of Arizona and Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire -- Hatch professes not to be impressed.

"As much as I am a friend of all the others, I really question whether any of them could actually be elected president," he said. "Perhaps they feel the same way about me."

McCain also running

McCain has been campaigning actively for the presidency for months and is generally given a better chance by his colleagues than Hatch of being able to pick up momentum if Bush stumbles.

But, referring to McCain, Hatch said: "I think I can appeal to more people because I have fought so many battles here on all sides."

That could cut both ways. Hatch may be best remembered by many Americans for his stern, even contemptuous, grilling of Anita Hill during the nationally televised 1991 Senate hearings on her claims of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee.

Some moderates and women may not be able to forgive him that. At the same time, some conservative Republican activists have disowned Hatch for his close friendship with the liberal Kennedy. (Hatch once dedicated a song to Kennedy and his wife, Vicky.)

The Kennedy connection

The two senators have joined forces on many bills, including a successful proposal two years ago to raise the cigarette tax to pay for health insurance for poor children.

Conservatives grumble that whenever Hatch deals with Kennedy, he gives more than he gets.

"The notoriety of the Hatch-Kennedy relationship may have little consequence in the Senate, but among Republican primary voters, I think it raises questions Hatch would rather not have to answer," said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Yet Hatch figures that his deal-making can serve as a strength.

"I'm frustrated that we can't get people to come together," he said. "Everybody knows I'm conservative, but they also know I've got a heart and I work hard to help people. That means fur flying everywhere -- in a nice way. I'm a tough guy in an open-hearted way."

Even so, the senator is way behind on the nuts-and-bolts stuff, like raising at least $10 million to $12 million over the next few months, and putting campaign organizations in early primary states. He's just hired his first two operatives in New Hampshire.

Hedging his bets

But Hatch is hedging his bets. He hasn't given up his re-election bid next year in Utah for a fifth term in the Senate, and he says he will bow out of the presidential race if he begins to look silly.

"When people openly snicker, you know you've miscalculated your prospects," said Sal Russo, Hatch's campaign consultant.

So far, nobody is openly snickering in the Capitol. But Hatch's colleagues are teasing him good-naturedly. Kennedy, who failed in his own primary bid for the White House in 1980, said he could offer advice only on what not to do.

Hatch vigorously resists the suggestion, though, that he's just taking a flier for the fun of it, sort of like Governor Bush's father, who, having served one term in the White House, is now jumping out of airplanes.

"I'm not that crazy," Hatch says.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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