Phil Gramm: Senator from Texas Sees No Problems That Americans Can't Fix, with Him as President

By Myers, E. Michael | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Phil Gramm: Senator from Texas Sees No Problems That Americans Can't Fix, with Him as President


Myers, E. Michael, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


DUBUQUE, Iowa - Pausing on a snowy path alongside a sturdy white clapboard farmhouse, Sen. Phil Gramm touches the cold red cheeks of 11-year-old Drew Cox and pats the glossy coats of two handsome black labs, kin of his own golden labrador.

Mr. Gramm has just emerged from the kitchen of Andy and Caryn Cox, both 30 and working hard at three jobs to raise a family of two and save a little.

"He seemed more real to life, maybe, because he was in my kitchen, a grandfather type, sitting, talking to us," Mrs. Cox says. "I could not be comfortable with [President] Clinton or [Senate Majority Leader] Bob Dole. Dole scares me."

Mr. Gramm has chatted around the kitchen table with dozens of Iowa families, a strategy that's short on exposure but long on symbolic and anecdotal power. The visits are often televised on the local news, and the conversations provide Mr. Gramm with fresh details about middle-class hardships to supplement his stump speech.

The Texas senator, who often appears unsympathetic on television, was direct and personable with the Coxes. As he does on the stump, Mr. Gramm recalled his own experiences of failing three grades and working odd jobs to help his widowed mother and older brother make ends meet.

Andy Cox, who works for Interstate Power Co., expects to vote for Steve Forbes in Monday's Republican caucuses. His wife, an associate special education teacher who moonlights as a waitress, is leaning toward supporting Mr. Gramm.

Up close, Mr. Gramm connects. But he loses people at a distance and on television, which is extremely hazardous because most of this year's campaign has been conducted over the airwaves and in auditorium and hotel ballrooms.

The dichotomy could not be more surprising or, as it turns out, more debilitating to Mr. Gramm's presidential prospects.

"I think a lot of people just don't understand his accent," says Phil Bailey, a 64-year-old retired doughnut shop owner who braved icy temperatures to meet Mr. Gramm at the Indianola Public Library.

"But I do not know where they get this negative, mean-spirited stuff about him," Mr. Bailey says. "He is good in person. I have seen television news reels about him that kind of leave a dry taste in your mouth about him. But it's not the same with him in person. He has integrity."

Mr. Gramm never did much intimate campaigning in runs for the House or Senate in Texas. He relied on television and radio and big events and they served him well.

Once in Washington, Mr. Gramm sought out reporters and photographers with a zeal that disgusted other lawmakers - particularly senators. A joke began to circulate that the most dangerous place in Washington was between Mr. Gramm and a television camera.

The joke took root and became part of Gramm folklore, so much so that a recent Harper's Index revealed that it appeared in 19 profiles of Mr. Gramm.

How does a Texas politician accustomed to big media and big speeches fall flat in wide-open venues and on the airwaves of Iowa and New Hampshire and other early primary states?

It's one of the great mysteries of campaign '96 but was perhaps foreshadowed by the uninspiring speech he delivered at the Republican National Convention in Houston four years ago.

Whatever it is that Mr. Gramm is lacking, he has precious little time to reverse his fortunes.

Today's Louisiana caucuses present one opportunity. Mr. Gramm is heavily favored there, and a sweep of 21 of 28 available delegates would reverse his also-ran status.

But even that won't be easy. Mr. Gramm's big lead in Louisiana has evaporated, and he now risks losing some delegates to Pat Buchanan. Where it was once assumed Mr. Gramm would coast to victory, the senator must wage an all-out effort.

Mr. Gramm is returning to the Bayou State today in a massive get-out-the-vote effort required to stave off Mr. …

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