Gramm heads fight for White House

Nomination tussle threatens Republican unity, reports Phil Reeves from Washington
Click to follow
The Independent Online
As Republicans continue to try to convince sceptical Americans that their control of the 104th US Congress will bring nothing short of political revolution, a more traditional battle is rapidly gathering pace within the party ranks.

The straw-polling season - the traditional rite of passage for presidential contenders - has already begun, suggesting that the party's prospects of maintaining a unified front may be short-lived.

And, although such surveys are of little long-term political significance, one leading candidate is making it abundantly clear that he will fight for the nomination on every possible front, no matter how trifling: Phil Gramm, the right-wing and highly combative senator from Texas.

On Saturday, Mr Gramm emerged an overwhelming victor from a poll of Louisiana Republicans by grabbing 72 per cent of the 1,247 votes cast. The results were largely irrelevant: Louisiana is dominated by Democrats, and Mr Gramm, a steely-eyed ex-professor from the South, would hope to win on home turf.

Moreover, Bob Dole, his biggest rival among the handful of likely runners, tried to pull his name from the ballot.

Yet Mr Gramm's approach to the contest was extraordinary, and a measure of the likely brawl to come. According to the Washington Post, he sent two staffers to Louisiana to campaign for his cause for more than two weeks. He also sent out letters to delegates and even - according to one account - telephoned several dozen on Christmas Day. "There's only one speed in my motor, and that's all-out," he remarked.

The ferocity of Mr Gramm's early campaigning, which yesterday even stole a little limelight from the Messianic Newt Gingrich, owes much to the fact that Republicans see President Bill Clinton as extremely vulnerable in 1996, and have real hopes of winning the White House. But the senator clearly also recognises the need to act early to raise funds.

It will be crucial to have a fat campaign war-chest by early next year, as the dates of several big primary elections - in particular, California's - have been moved forward. Mr Gramm already has $7.8m (£5.1m) - a sizeable sum, but some $12m short of theamount need to make him a serious candidate for the nomination.

With the jockeying for position and the signing up of financial backers well under way, the likely field of runners and riders continues to take shape. Mr Dole, the Majority leader in the Senate, is widely expected to run, especially as recent polls showhim some 10 points ahead of Mr Clinton in the approval ratings. Other possibles include Dan Quayle (despite health problems), Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, and Pete Wilson, governor of California. Jack Kemp, the former housing and urbandevelopment secretary, appears to be wavering. Dick Cheney, the Defense Secretary under George Bush, pulled out last week.

What is far clearer is the likelihood of a battle royal between Messrs Gramm and Dole, who says he will announce his decision by March. There has never been much love lost between these seasoned warriors. Last month evidence emerged that the more moderate Mr Dole manoeuvred behind the scenes to ensure Mr Gramm was denied a seat on the influential and high-profile Senate finance committee. Mr Gramm played that down, but it seems inevitable there will be more elbow-jabbing in the Senate. Their handling ofthis could be critical. There is already debate over how they will reconcile their presidential ambitions with their mutual interest in a successful Republican Congress.

If the in-fighting becomes too bloody, both could end up losing points - especially if the Republicans' much publicised "Contract With America" also fails to live up to the high expectations of the American public.

And the other results of the Louisiana poll? For the record, Pat Buchanan, scourge of George Bush in 1992, came second, and Mr Alexander, third.