Gramm takes aim at the booming debt

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Three words sum up Senator Phil Gramm, the presidential candidate: guns, God and the budget. Guns of course means the National Rifle Association, over the years his biggest single source of contributions. God stands for his rigid anti-abortion stance, with which he woos the religious right. But currently the most important is the budget: the one issue which may yet revive his ebbing political fortunes.

Mr Gramm is not a man who inspires instant affection. But one thing must be said of him: he has never disguised his White House ambitions. Almost from the day Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he's been working states like New Hampshire and Iowa. But nowhere is he running better than 15 per cent, and here he has sunk to single figures. Well-funded and single- minded, he was supposed to be the conservative alternative to Bob Dole. Instead, he must vie for the Christian and social right vote with the commentator Pat Buchanan, and is losing the radical economic argument to the upstart Steve Forbes.

Mr Gramm's stump style is a mirror of the man: unsubtle, persistent and uncompromising, he peers at his target through thick gold-rimmed glasses before making his pitch in a thick Texan drawl. Other candidates drop hints about Mr Dole's advanced years. Mr Gramm goes for the jugular, accusing the Senate leader of being a trimmer, a compromiser whose word is worth no more than the odds of cutting a legislative deal in a back room.

"Mr Dole cannot beat President Clinton, but I can," he argues - by appealing to conservative Democrats, just as he did when he switched parties in the early 80s, resigned his seat and then retained it.

Would that it were so easy now. Take Arizona, which is supposed to be prime Gramm territory and holds its primary on 27 February. Mr Forbes is actually leading there. Belatedly Mr Gramm has espoused the flat tax, which has catapulted Mr Forbes to celebrity, at an even lower rate of 16 per cent but offset by enough spending cuts to preserve the balanced budget.

The budget is his most powerful card. The national debt, he says, now stands at $18,700 per head: "If I don't balance the budget in my first term, I will not run for a second." Audiences listen with respect - but without real fervour.

"I was a foot-soldier in the Reagan revolution," Mr Gramm loves to claim. But he is hardly a happy warrior. True, he has something of the Great Communicator's knack of a catchy phrase - but a hard, unforgiving edge as well. "People who are sitting in the cart should get out and pull with everyone else," is a favourite Gramm line on welfare. But Mr Forbes, the nearest approximation of Reagan in the race, blithely trumps him: "The genius of America is finding better ways to pull."

New Hampshire is not choice Gramm territory. It should be, given its abhorrence of taxes and obsession with a balanced budget. But the Senator slighted it by campaigning in other states, jealous of New Hampshire's influence, which have moved their primaries forward. That probably cost him a precious endorsement from Governor Steve Merrill, who has now cast in his lot with Mr Dole.

But the risk is finely calculated. Mr Gramm's strategy is clear: Do well in the largely overlooked Louisiana caucuses on 6 February to offset a possibly poor showing in Iowa, where Mr Dole should cruise to victory; then neutralise a bad finish here with a win or strong second in Delaware. That, he reckons, should keep his candidacy credible until the primaries move to friendlier territory in the South.

And so, undeterred, Phil Gramm continues. Last weekend he was in Memphis, singing gospel music at the "National Affairs Briefing" conference of Christian activists and committing himself anew to a constitutional outlawing of abortion. And he should never be underrated. "Yuck," is how Wendy Lee Gramm describes her first reaction to her future husband. Could his courtship of Republican voters yet yield the same result?