Hatch's losing cause

January 21, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES -- For Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, it might have seemed that at last his lonely battle for attention in his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination was beginning to bear fruit. He stood before an array of television cameras in the auditorium of the Principal Insurance Group here Wednesday and spoke for more than an hour as the large audience of employees listened intently.

Mr. Hatch was eloquent as he recited his long experience in the Senate, including special missions for the GOP's icon, President Reagan, unmatched by any of the other five Republicans seeking support of Iowans in Monday night's precinct caucuses. But in reality, it was the frigid, snowy weather outside, and the fact that he was the only candidate of either party in Des Moines on this day, that brought more coverage to this event than to most others in his dismal quest.

This is the way it has been for Mr. Hatch ever since last summer when he surprised his party by becoming the last candidate to enter the race. He explained then that he wanted to be available in the event the clear front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, were to stumble and leave the party without, in his view, a credible alternative.

It was a slap, perhaps unwittingly, at the other 10 Republicans then still in contention against Mr. Bush, but it reflected Mr. Hatch's conviction -- conveyed ever since, including in his appearance in snowy Des Moines the other day -- that the field lacked anyone who could match his long public service and comfort level with the ways of Washington.

There is an earnestness about Mr. Hatch as he laments the apparent failure of Iowans to grasp his superior political resume and pay attention to him, but it is tinged with self-deprecating humor. "I'm running for president of the United States," he said for openers in this particular talk. "I'm getting that out. This morning my wife said to me, `Hey, Orrin. I hear you're running for president of the United States.'"

But it clearly hurts for this man, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has a long record of legislative accomplishments, that he remains among the other hopeless also-rans in the GOP race. What grates particularly is that foes who, as he puts it, "have never been elected to anything," such as Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer are reaching for the White House just as he is. Why elect someone, he asks, "who has never had a relationship with the three branches of government?" He whispers sadly: "Give me a break."

The gentlemanly Mr. Hatch is quick, however, to note that "I like everybody running for president," including the two contending Democrats, Vice President Al Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, at the same time warning "they're far left and you'd better understand that." In his sartorial elegance, his outrage is properly muffled and becomes more a plea to reason than a harangue.

His frustration fairly leaks out from his being. "Every interview the last few months," he confides to his audience, "starts out something like this: `Senator, you're a giant in the Senate. Why are you doing this? You haven't a chance.'" Then he notes a recent poll indicating that 75 percent of voters haven't picked their candidate yet. "We're not going to let the press say there are only two men in the race (presumably Mr. Bush and fellow Sen. John McCain of Arizona)," he pleads, "when 75 percent haven't even made up their minds."

The real issues aren't being discussed, he says, noting correctly that in a recent debate not one Republican candidate responded to a question about health care, and he launches into a chronicle of all he has achieved in the field in the Senate. In today's Washington of mixed party responsibility, he says at one point, "you can't get anything through, but Orrin Hatch will die trying."

Mr. Hatch's plea to "give me a break" almost certainly will be in vain Monday night. But if so, he will be able to reflect on his lonely trek around Iowa with his head characteristically high, having competed honestly and in good humor, in an era when both traits too often are in short supply.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau. Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus &Giroux, 1999).

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