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How Gramm Could Do It

His Iowa coalition of gun owners, tax protesters and true believers is rattling Dole's campaign

January 22, 1996

From TIME Correspondent Michael Duffy Eldridge

WITH LESS THAN A MONTH TO GO BEfore the Iowa caucuses, Phil Gramm knows this is no time to be timid. So when much of the country praised Bob Dole recently for breaking a legislative logjam and reopening the Federal Government, Gramm, alone among his rivals, rushed a TV spot onto the air that claimed the Senate leader had "caved in" on a balanced budget. Gramm's frontal attack was a bold gamble that Dole's statesmanship, while it wins praise with Americans generally, might bomb with G.O.P. conservatives in the first big presidential contest next month.

Judging from the 550 people who showed up at a roller rink in tiny Eldridge, Iowa, to eat fried chicken and meet the candidate last Thursday, Gramm's bet may be a smart one. The overflow crowd, coming at the beginning of a two-day bus tour around the state, caught Gramm's organizers off guard. Extra tables had to be brought in from the local fire department and satellite parking arranged a quarter mile away. "Is this heaven?" wondered a pleased Gramm as he surveyed the gathering. To a Dole operative the next morning, it sounded more like hell. Informed of the attendance figures, she said softly, "Wow, In a roller rink?"

While some of his rivals whisper about Dole's age or electability, Gramm challenges Dole head on, blasting him as too willing to compromise on health care, welfare, abortion and tax cuts. As long as the race can be defined as a referendum on red ink, Gramm believes he will profit and Dole will suffer. "It's becoming clear to American voters that if they want a balanced budget, they are going to have to elect a President who is committed to it," he told TIME. Late last week, Gramm struck again: after Bill Clinton announced in his Thursday press conference that he had made a "reality check" call to Dole about the budget talks, Gramm released a statement urging Dole to "stop conducting back-channel budget negotiations with Bill Clinton from the campaign trail."

Dole's reputation as a compromiser has made it easier for Gramm to form a coalition out of a disparate array of conservatives, including antiabortionists, gun owners, antipornography crusaders, tax protesters, working women, stay-at-home moms, even some fathers'-rights activists. At every stop, Gramm emphasizes his zeal to balance the budget, cut taxes on families, end welfare benefits to people with children born out of wedlock and appoint judges who "will interpret not reinvent the Constitution." His flat-tax proposal, which retains the charitable-contribution deduction, is carefully designed to attract check-writing churchgoers, and it's a message he drives home with ads on 12 Christian stations across the state.

Gramm is trying to make up in well-practiced humility what he lacks in charisma. His shoes are falling apart, he explains, and his watch is broken. Six or seven times a day, he ventures into rented halls and coffee shops and describes himself as the late-blooming son of a hardscrabble family who "flunked the third, seventh and ninth grades" and still got a Ph.D. He recalls after his father died watching how his mother and older brother would sit around the kitchen table each month and decide which bills to pay. The bootstrap imagery is designed to dilute Gramm's reputation as meanspirited and boost his approval rating. In a TIME/CNN poll last week, only 46% of those surveyed were familiar with Gramm, and only half those people said they have a favorable impression of the Senator.

Gramm has shrewdly focused on states where his message has greater purchase. He aims to win in Louisiana's little-watched caucuses six days before the Iowa contest and to offset the impact of a likely Dole victory in New Hampshire on Feb. 20 with a win in Delaware four days later. The former economics professor and onetime Democrat hopes to be ahead in delegates by March 1 and "break out" with a win in conservative South Carolina on March 2.

Dole last week dismissed Gramm's tactics, saying, "This is not going to work." But just in case, Dole's campaign long ago market-tested a series of television spots attacking the Texas Senator, which a senior Dole campaign official boasts are unusually effective. What might those ads say? A Dole operative hints that they might compare Dole's war record with Gramm's five Vietnam-era draft deferments. In Iowa last Friday, Gramm ridiculed the Dole camp's frequent allusions to his military record, deftly making the point in the context of the budget talks. "If saying 'I served' is the best Bob Dole can do responding to a question about the budget, then I think I'll get a better ticket out of Iowa than I expected."

--With reporting by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum/Washington and Nina Burleigh/Eldridge

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