With `late' start, Hatch is betting front-runner will fall

June 30, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Does anyone doubt that this presidential campaign is shaping up to be a little unconventional? Consider this: When Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah recently announced his intention to seek the presidency -- about 17 months before the next presidential election -- political insiders dismissed him as too late.

When Mr. Hatch made his surprise declaration, 11 other Republicans were already in the field of presidential dreamers, some for a year or more. And one of them -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- was so far ahead in the polls that the wise men of politics were already anointing him as the next GOP nominee.

All of them except Mr. Bush had been out beating the bushes for months in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two traditional kickoff states for convention delegate selection, and, Mr. Bush included, raising millions of dollars to be competitive.

Furthermore, for all of Mr. Hatch's 23 years of experience in the Senate and his sponsorship of much important health-care and tax-reduction legislation, he has had the image of a very strait-laced conservative -- a cartoonist's delight, what with the tight white collars he fancies and what often comes off as a lofty, even priggish, manner.

It is hard to picture him as a one-time janitor, as he described himself Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," when on the Senate floor he is always so immaculately scrubbed and attired. And in his own party, Mr. Hatch's friendship and sometimes legislative partnership with the bete noir of Republicans, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, has marked him in many eyes as an odd man out.

But he apparently has been struck by the same question originally attributed to another senator who, in 1959, looked around on the Senate floor one day, saw the colleagues being mentioned as presidential prospects, and was said to have asked himself: "Why not me?" That other senator was John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

In 1959, when Kennedy was said to have decided to seek the presidency, at least two other formidable senators were lusting after the Democratic nomination -- Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Stuart Symington of Missouri. Kennedy didn't declare his candidacy until January of the election year itself, but that was before there were so many primaries to enter and so much campaign money needed for television advertising.

Mr. Hatch also was able to look around the Senate floor and see two colleagues going after the Republican nomination. One was John McCain of Arizona, a bona fide reformer, but the other was Bob Smith of New Hampshire, an unaccomplished self-promoter whose candidacy is a joke. So why not, indeed, Mr. Hatch?

Sal Russo, a veteran California consultant who is advising Mr. Hatch, says his man and Mr. Bush are the only two "sunny conservatives" in the race amid all the others who preach what's wrong with the country -- to voters who seem generally content. "If Bush is as good as they say he is, then hell, it's over," Mr. Russo says, but if the Texan should slip, Mr. Hatch with his experience and optimism can be the beneficiary.

Mr. Russo says the bunched-up primary calendar, with the nomination likely to be decided by mid-March of 2000, means not as much money as expected will be needed to be competitive among the survivors if Mr. Bush stumbles. He notes also that other early front-runners making their first try, like George Romney in 1968 and John Connally in 1980 (and Democrat Ed Muskie in 1972), haven't held up in the rough-and-tumble of a presidential race.

The Texas governor seems to owe his heavy establishment and financial support to a widespread belief, confirmed in all the polls, that he is a strong vote-getter, particularly among women and Hispanics, who can beat the expected Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

If that belief is somehow shaken between now and the end of the 2000 primary season, who can blame Mr. Hatch, even at this supposedly "late" date, for putting himself in position to ask voters: "Why not me?"

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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