HAVRE de GRACE -- Sometimes, back in the days when one of the hats I wore occasionally was that of an assistant scoutmaster, we'd take the kids on a long, tough hike. Those outings bore a certain resemblance to this year's Republican presidential primaries.
They'd always begin with a lot of noise and confusion. At first the scouts would run wild. They'd charge up and down the trail, perhaps playing keepaway with some nerdy little kid's brand-new canteen. Often someone's pack would come open and his lunch would fall out, as likely as not to be lost or stepped on. There might be stifled tears. The adults on the hike would anticipate a long, long day.
But then, little by little, things would get sorted out. Leaders, not always the ones we'd expected, and followers would begin to emerge. Finally we'd reach the halfway point, have our lunch and compare blisters. After that we'd hit the trail again, more sedately than in the morning, and then almost before you knew it the day was over.
Those hikes were useful as a short-term release for bottled-up energies, but they had a more durable value too. Although some participants inevitably enjoyed them more than others, everybody learned something -- about themselves and their companions if nothing else.
On the 1996 presidential-primary hike, we're not even to the lunch stop yet, but with Maryland's and the other Junior Tuesday elections past, the sorting-out process is well under way. Bob Dole is still the leader, as was expected. The surprise has been the lack of staying power of most of his challengers, who have been faltering one by one for a variety of different reasons.
Phil Gramm's campaign faltered, fatally, because even though he had raised a lot of money he didn't seem to be a very nice person. Steve Forbes' faltered, perhaps not yet fatally, because although he has a mountain of money, too, and seems a pleasant fellow, he hasn't yet been able to explain persuasively just why he wants the job he's running for.
That leaves Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander. (Inevitably, candidates Richard Lugar, Alan Keyes and Robert Dornan -- respectively Best Second Choice, Most Spellbinding Orator and Least Tightly Wrapped of all who set out on this epic quest -- have already slid into the shadows.) Messrs. Buchanan and Alexander are both having issue trouble, the one because he may have the wrong issues and the other because he doesn't really have any that seem serious.
Mr. Buchanan has a lot of targets he'd like to stick a pitchfork in: the federal government, big corporations, uppity ethnic groups, the sexually unconventional, immigrants. This worries people who may share some of his irritation but suspect that his target list might suddenly grow longer, and that when it does they might be on it.
As for Mr. Alexander, who is the only candidate to spell his first name with an exclamation point, his only issues seem to be Bob Dole's age, which he considers too advanced, and Congress. "Cut their pay and send them home," he says of Congress, which is certainly a punchy slogan. But it's an uncertain trumpet call to those Republicans who wonder why, now that they have taken control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, they should close the place down before trying to do something with it.
So that leaves Senator Dole, the old veteran. It's almost poignant to watch him campaign; he has come all the way from Washington, where he has spent most of his working life, to ask for the presidential nomination of the party of opposition to Washington.
And it's painfully obvious that he has little patience with some of the new themes reverberating through his grand old party. He grew up in Congress as an exponent of the old conservatism of tight belts and pursed lips. He still seems to have a visceral sense, even as he did in the Reagan years, that there's something vaguely suspicious, even blasphemous, about wanting to make the Republicans the party of growth, of freedom and of opportunity. In his political youth only Democrats talked like that.
But he's an intelligent man and a practical one. He's learned that if he wants to lead the old scout troop in song, he can't stand up there like a wooden Native American. He's going to have to move his lips, and it wouldn't hurt to try to look as though he's enjoying himself, either. / /TC So here he sits now, trailside, amid the assistant scoutmasters of his party and the tired-out kids who raced up the first steep slopes and exhausted themselves. He's taking a breath before tackling New York Ridge, the last important climb before the lunch break. There's not much doubt any more he'll lead the troop to that point.
As he knows the trail so well, he's aware that after surmounting New York he'll be able to see a long way, even to the top of Nomination Knob. He expects to lead the kids there too, and if their feet are sore and bloody by that time, so be it. Pain's good for Republicans.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 3/07/96