MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- Sen. Phil Gramm spies a baby being held by a voter in the audience. "Hold up that beautiful baby," he calls out. "What's the name of that beautiful baby?" Mr. Gramm then proceeds to relate darkly what the future has in store for the little girl if something drastic isn't done.
In her lifetime, he intones, she will be taxed $187,000 just to pay the interest on the national debt. If the little girl is shocked, she shows no sign. But Senator Gramm hopes her parents and others will be -- shocked enough to do something about it by voting for him in the Iowa precinct caucuses February 12.
This cameo of the stern-talking, stern-looking former economics professor endeavoring to soften his statistic-laden speech with a human touch is a measure of Mr. Gramm's determination to rescue his presentation from deadening boredom. It only half succeeds.
Try as he may, Phil Gramm comes off as the doctor prescribing sour medicine and reading the dosage off the bottle. Balancing the budget, he says, will save the average Iowa family $1,800 a year. Adopting the flat tax proposed by magazine publisher Steve Forbes, he warns, would eliminate the home mortgage deduction, costing the average family $3,300.
To illustrate his familiarity with the problem of living on a fixed income, Mr. Gramm tells how, as a boy, he sat around an "old rusty Formica table" in the family kitchen on Sunday nights "with my momma and big brother" as they tried to figure out "what bills we could get away without paying" that week. He reports with an accountant's precision that Americans cut out 102 million discount coupons from their newspapers every week to save an average of 63 cents on their grocery bills.
The clear message is that the same painstaking frugality that has to be practiced in the average home must be followed around the national kitchen table by harnessing a wildly extravagant and wasteful bureaucracy in Washington under a liberal Democratic president.
The key to success, he suggests, is gritty perseverance, and he offers his own experience as a guide. "I failed the third, seventh and ninth grades," he admits, but with his mother's insistence that "that boy's going to go to college," he eventually earned a Ph.D. in economics and became a college professor.
Persistence paid off again in his account of how he proposed marriage to his wife, Wendy. He got down on his knees in public. "She said, 'Get up,' but I stayed down there. I said I wouldn't get up until she said yes." Such determination finally swayed the future Mrs. Gramm.
The Texas senator reminds his audiences that when President Clinton launched his ambitious health-care reform plan in 1993 and it appeared to be on its way to enactment, he almost alone stood up and declared that it would only pass "over my cold, dead body," and he stopped it.
Now, Mr. Gramm offers another example of his steely commitment. When he is elected president (he says "when," not "if") he promises he will make balancing the budget "my primary objective" and will not seek a second term if he fails.
Determined to overcome the wide lead that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole holds in polls, Mr. Gramm contrasts his record of standing unswervingly on principle with Senator Dole's as a Washington "deal-cutter" who, he charges, abandoned resolute congressional Republicans by calling for an end to the partial government shutdown.
But although Senator Gramm casts the race for the Republican nomination as a contest between his stolid self and a compromising Mr. Dole, the voters don't seem to see it as a two-man race. Here in Iowa, Mr. Gramm ran third behind Mr. Forbes in the most recent Des Moines Register poll, and in a candidate forum last weekend, the dour Texan came off as just another of the eight challengers to a laid-back, good-humored Dole.
Senator Gramm plods doggedly on, clearly convinced of the righteousness of his cause -- achieving a balanced budget as the key to a sound future for that "beautiful little baby" he spots in almost every crowd.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.