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Phil Gramm: A Slash And Burn Artist's White House Quest

Washington Outlook


He won't win any congeniality contests. His combative style turns off colleagues. Even his wife says that when she met him, "My first reaction was, `Yuk--what a jerk."' Still, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) thirsts for the Presidency. His ambition to lead a crusade for less intrusive government explains why Gramm has become one of Bill Clinton's chief tormentors on Capitol Hill.

The 52-year-old former economics professor vows to use slash-and-burn tactics on what's left of the President's 1994 agenda. And as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Gramm is leading the charge to elect at least four more Republicans to the Senate this fall--and stymie Clinton's initiatives for the remainder of his term. That's why, though he's not up for reelection, he's out stumping for candidates during the Labor Day recess.

The GOP's 1992 White House loss convinced many strategists that the party needed an activist government agenda to win. Not Gramm. The GOP's Dr. No is instead prodding colleagues to kill every Clinton program in sight.

It was Gramm who persuaded Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) to try to kill Clinton's crime bill--a strategy that crumbled when GOP moderates defected. Yet, even in failure, Gramm found victory: By prolonging debate, he blocked passage of major health reform this year. "The President has failed to sell his programs to the American people," says Gramm. "The logical thing to do is to have an election in November and start over next year."

That's mighty convenient for Gramm, since he figures the mid-term elections will be disastrous for the Democrats. And Gramm can claim credit: He has been to 38 states this year, raising as much as $350,000 a day for GOP candidates.

Gramm's travels also help forge his links to the donor network, letting him amass an $8 million war chest of his own--three times that of other Presidential rivals. Colleagues grumble that he's a self-promoter. "Gramm is acting absolutely, uncontrollably on personal ambition," says a GOP Senate aide.

To this charge, Gramm pleads nolo contendere. "It's a valid criticism, but what's wrong with all this helping me? I sure hope I get more than saddle sores." And if the Senate goes Republican, "maybe some people will like me."

Will the GOP faithful like Gramm enough to nominate him in '96? His folksy homilies don't electrify party cattle shows, and his speech at the '92 GOP convention was a dud. His PhD in legislative gridlock is a reminder that he's a creature of the Capital Beltway. And his economic conservatism hardly stands out in a crowded GOP field.

DEMOLITION KING? Still, opponents who have tangled with Gramm warn that it would be a mistake to discount him. "People don't understand how shrewd he is," says Clinton adviser Paul E. Begala, whose candidate, Lloyd Doggett, was trounced by Gramm in a 1984 Senate race.

For Gramm to win the right to challenge Clinton, party pros figure that chief rivals--Dole, 71, and former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp--would have to fizzle. Ex-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney makes Gramm look charismatic. Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander is distrusted by the right, and few give former Vice-President Dan Quayle a real chance.

The way Gramm sees it, if he keeps dynamiting Clinton's "welfare state" programs, he'll become a hero to party stalwarts. But unless he constructs a compelling agenda for the country, it's unlikely the skillful demolition expert will be able to blast his way into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN By Douglas Harbrecht

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