A Democratic Dark Horse Who Isn't Afraid to Take the Lead
Mike Gravel has a lovely view of the Mall from his Rosslyn high-rise, which is about as close as he's likely to get to living in the White House. But a guy can dream, can't he?
"I am the front-runner!" the former Democratic senator from Alaska proclaimed in his apartment yesterday, hours after announcing his presidential candidacy. "I'm the guy to beat."
In a technical sense, Gravel is correct. The more plausible candidates for the Democratic nomination -- Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, John Edwards and other big names -- haven't formally announced their candidacies. Gravel's announcement makes him the first, excluding the usual jokesters, nobodies and also-rans who have already filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Gravel joins the proud tradition of dark-horse candidates, such as Dennis Kucinich, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes. "And Al Sharpton," the former senator adds, helpfully.
He'll be using the same gadfly playbook. Try to get on a lot of ballots and in all the debates. If lightning strikes, which it never does, you win. At worst, you get free media attention for your pet causes, in Gravel's case, nationwide ballot initiatives and a federal sales tax. "That's about the size of it," the candidate admits with a smile. The goal: "to capitalize on the celebrity nature of the presidential campaign."
If Mike Gravel, 1970s-era senator, held a news conference about ballot initiatives, nobody would show up. But as Mike Gravel, presidential candidate, he lured 50 people to his news conference, drew 30 interview requests, and landed on the Drudge Report, "Hannity & Colmes" and C-SPAN.
It's surprisingly cheap to exploit the media's presidential obsession: Gravel spent about $1,500 to rent a room and microphone at the National Press Club and to get U.S. Newswire to send out his press releases. His grandkids drew up some campaign posters. And he had a glamour photo done with the requisite pose of the open-collared candidate viewing a distant horizon (although in this case the studio lights are reflected in the candidate's eyes).
It's early in the 2008 campaign, of course, but there was little evidence of a groundswell at yesterday's Gravel kickoff. "I'm sure some of you have some questions," the candidate said after he finished his announcement speech. Nobody raised a hand. "Who has the first question?" he repeated. Nobody did. "I think there are some press people in the room, aren't there?"
Finally, a man from the Associated Press took pity on Gravel and asked a question about ballot initiatives. Gravel gave a lengthy answer that involved Lord Acton. "I took a long time because they're not coming at me very fast," he explained. "I can give another speech if you like."
The AP guy put up his hand again. "You're all alone," the candidate observed. "Go ahead." Finally, a few others joined in the questioning.
"I thought there'd be more questions," Gravel said after it had all finished. It's probably not the last rude surprise for Gravel's '08 campaign -- unless, of course, he can produce some surprises of his own.
Before the event, The Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb overheard a cameraman puzzling over the host of the news conference: "I think he was a senator for one term." A friend of Gravel's informed the cameraman that Gravel served two terms, thank you very much, and his name is pronounced the French way: Gra-VEL.