Phil Gramm is the straw stirring Bob Dole's drink


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The morning after Bob Dole signed "the pledge" promising not to raise income taxes, Phil Gramm was back in New Hampshire bright and early to trump his rival's ace. He would make "a stronger pledge," he told a Rotary Club breakfast in Derry. "I want to cut taxes."

As a practical matter, all of the Republicans running for president -- including the Senate majority leader -- are falling over (x themselves to promise tax reduction.

But the operative point is that this little bit of gamesmanship by Gramm is reflective of the place he has seized as the candidate defining the Far Right position among the Republicans with any realistic chance of being nominated.

"They want someone who's fought for these things their whole life," he said in Derry. "I am that person." If the Republicans want to "moderate (the 'Contract with America') or move to the center, then I won't win," he told reporters here.

There is no mystery about the intention of the aggressive senator from Texas. In one appearance after another, he is inviting his fellow Republicans to compare his record with that of Bob Dole and then draw their own conclusions. "You'll see," he says, "a very distinct difference."

The implication of all this is that he is the Real Goods, not some conservative-come-lately. And on almost every issue, it is obvious that he has consistently staked out positions less compromising than Dole. And the inference primary and caucus voters are supposed to draw is that this tough line is what the electorate that turned the Congress over to the Republicans Nov. 8 is demanding.

The strategy, moreover, appears to be working. Dole has not only signed the pledge on taxes, something he failed to do in the primary campaign here eight years ago, but has spelled out a rightist position on virtually every issue in his first days as an announced candidate.

The intriguing question is how Gramm, who runs a distant second or third behind Dole in all opinion polls, is able to control the agenda as effectively as he is doing right now.

One reason clearly is the strength of Gramm's personality and his aggressive posture as a candidate. He behaves as if he cannot be denied, and he can be both vivid and persuasive. No one thinks he'll yield easily.

More important, however, is the remarkable start Gramm has made in terms of both money and organization. He already has 50,000 contributors, he is quick to remind everyone, and it is obvious that he is going to be the first Republican to raise the $20 million that is considered the stake to play in the game all the way.

The money has significant strategic implications. Gramm and his rivals alike know he will be well-enough financed so that he will not be driven to the sidelines in silence if he suffers some early setbacks.

As things stand now, Gramm is a pronounced long shot against Dole in the first precinct caucuses in Iowa, where the Kansan won eight years ago and seems to hold a commanding position now. And Gramm has not yet lighted any fires here in the state that will hold the first primary eight days after Iowa.

Gramm has elicited the support of Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire -- all the other big hitters are with Dole -- and he has been assiduous about returning again and again to the state on a schedule that puts him here at least four days a month. But veterans of primary campaigns here say he has not yet connected personally with New Hampshire Republicans even when they agree with his views.

"Gramm's got the right message but he gets in the way of the message," said a leading Republican.

But if Gramm's style may not fit comfortably in New England, he already has a strong start in terms of organizational support in several Southern states whose primaries follow hard on the heels of the Feb. 20 vote here -- South Carolina, Georgia and Texas among them. And the Republican conservatism in those states tends to be far less diluted than it may be here.

It is, of course, far too early in the campaign to begin writing scripts for the way the primary schedule plays out. Most primary voters aren't paying attention yet, and the candidates have not been pitted against one another in the kind of televised confrontations that can be defining.

At this stage, nonetheless, Phil Gramm is the candidate determining the terms of the debate. He is, as Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson once described himself, the straw that stirs the drink.

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