Gramm opens White House bid

FROM RUPERT CORNWELL

in Washington

Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, armed with an unflinching conservative ideology, ruthless single-mindedness and - by his own admission most important of all - some $9m (£5.6m) in the bank, yesterday became the first Republican to declare his candidacy formally for the 1996 Presidential nomination.

The move, by a man who has been openly preparing for a White House run for at least two years, was anything but a surprise; such announcements are merely glorified photo-opportunities. But Mr Gramm did link it with a Texas-style superlative, an eve-of-declaration dinner in Dallas generating $4.1m, the biggest single fund-raising event in American political history.

Orchestrated with the precision of an old Soviet Communist Party congress and, with 2,800 guests, barely smaller, the gala featured a string of Republican luminaries extolling Mr Gramm from a rostrum under a huge gold- painted Lone Star and a phoney Presidential seal, combining into a Texan equivalent of the hammer and sickle.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr Gramm's overall campaign chief, promised his man would be a winner. To back that assertion, George Bush Jr, Texas Governor and son of the former President, promised to deliver his state, the second largest.

Charlton Heston - film star, conservative activist and erstwhile Moses - meanwhile supplied the vision: "The promised land is in sight . . . I am proud to present the man who will lead us up the mountain."

At his formal announcement in his Texas home town of College Station, Mr Gramm again delivered his tax-cutting, anti-government message. America was at a crossroads; it could either face up to its problems or allow itself to be overwhelmed by them. "We Republicans are one victory away from changing the course of US history, and getting our country back."

At this stage, however, money is more important than words. "I have the most reliable friend you can have in political life, and that is ready money," the 52-year old candidate told the dinner. And his $9m war chest, far greater than anything amassed by his rivals, puts him solidly on course to garner $20m, reckoned the minimum needed to fight next year's highly compressed primary season, where saturation television advertising could be decisive.

As the gala proved, Mr Gramm's fund-raising talents are legendary. Unlike most of his peers, he enjoys that aspect of his job, proudly displaying to visitors a computerised data bank of more than 60,000 actual and potential donors.

But the supreme prize of US politics cannot be secured by money alone. Another Texan, John Connolly, spent $12m in 1980 and ended with one delegate at the Republican convention. Respected for his discipline and drive but comparatively little known beyond Washington and his home state, Mr Gramm trails far behind Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and front-runner in the polls. Mr Dole will formally declare his candidacy in April. The former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, the third certain entrant, will do so next week.

Mr Gramm is no orator; his slow Texas drawl is at best folksy, at worst grating and monotonous. Many believe that while his unadulterated conservatism may appeal to the activists who dominate primary voting, it will ultimately prove too much for the moderates who decide Presidential elections. He has also yet to undergo the ferocious media scrutiny awaiting any serious contender for the White House. Questions are already being asked about his draft record in the Vietnam war, in which he secured five deferments and never served, and about some of his business dealings.

None of his Senate colleagues would underestimate him, but few confess to liking him much. A phrase, "Gramm-standing", has been coined to describe his habit of stealing credit for the achievements of others. But he revels in his harsh image. "There is no give in me," he told the Dallas faithful.

Much also depends on the size of the final field. California's Governor Pete Wilson is mulling over a candidacy but his ambitions may have been tempered by a poll showing him behind Mr Dole and General Colin Powell - whose party allegiance is not known, let alone his intentions of running - in the affections of California voters.

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