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Phil Gramm's Chilly New England Spring

Washington Outlook


On a sunny Mother's Day, the reserved Yankees of Rindge, N.H., politely sipped punch and nibbled cookies in their tiny town hall as Senator Phil Gramm railed against big government. The Texas Republican vowed to complete the Reagan Revolution by cutting taxes, slashing spending, forcing welfare recipients to work, and letting states criminalize abortion. "I'm shootin' with real bullets," he drawled. Clarence May, a retired phone company worker, nodded in approval: "I like what he's saying--but he's got an uphill climb."

Gramm is hearing that observation a lot as he campaigns for the GOP Presidential nomination: Party faithful like the message, but aren't ready to embrace the messenger. Gramm has raised an awesome $14 million and is the Senate's loudest conservative voice on issues from deficit reduction to blocking Surgeon General nominee Henry Foster. Yet he is stagnant in the polls, with about 10% of the vote, and is confounded by problems that money can't solve.

THE TWANG THANG. The man crowned by Washington insiders as the nominee-in-waiting a few months ago is watching his base splinter. He has lost ground to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who has veered to the right, and firebrand commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who is exceeding expectations. Religious conservatives complain that PhD economist Gramm talks too much about economics and not enough about God. Their worries were only reinforced by Gramm's May 17 admission that more than 20 years ago he invested $7,500 in a limited partnership to produce an R-rated movie titled Beauty Queens, which apparently was never made. His campaign denied the Texan was an investor in a company that produced porn movies.

Gramm's troubles come through clearly in the Granite State. Some laconic voters are put off by his aggressive personality and thick accent. GOP Governor Steve Merrill has him on the defensive for stumping in Delaware and Arizona--states that have tried to steal New Hampshire's spotlight as the first-in-the-nation primary. "There's something about him that people don't like," says GOP strategist Mark Goodin.

Recent evidence? The May 16 New Hampshire Poll put Gramm at 7%, trailing Dole (44%) and Buchanan (13%). Concedes Claremont lawyer Robert Morgan, a Gramm fan: "New Hampshire likes to pick winners. Mr. Gramm's problem is the drumbeat of `He can't win."'

Some GOP veterans already are comparing Gramm's monied campaign to the failed White House quest of another Texan: former Treasury Secretary John B. Connally, who spent $13 million nationally but won just one delegate in 1980. Still, it's too early to write off Gramm. What he lacks in charm, Gramm hopes to make up by capitalizing on hot-button issues. In antitax New Hampshire, for example, he contrasts his steady support for tax cuts with Dole's votes for tax hikes. And Al Rubega, president of the powerful Gun Owners of New Hampshire, says Gramm's uncompromising pro-gun stance "plays fabulously well" there.

To appeal to religious conservatives, Gramm has enlisted GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz, who works with Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, to develop moral themes. He also drafted two former aides of ex-Vice-President Dan Quayle, a favorite of social conservatives. Recent speeches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and the Heritage Foundation quoted the Scriptures and Adam Smith, winning raves from religious activists.

Gramm believes his vision of lower taxes and less government will eventually take hold. "I don't always make a great first impression," he admits, "but I wear well." That may be true. But will voters bother going on a second date?EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN By Richard S. Dunham in Rindge, N.H.

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