The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Mike Gravel: a man with a plan.
Mike Gravel: a man with a plan. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Washington Post editorialized last week that "voters trying to sort out their presidential choices aren't helped by debates cluttered with the likes of Mike Gravel." Mike Gravel disagrees.

"The arrogance in some parts of the Fourth Estate knows no bounds!" Gravel fumed as he outlined the Gravel Plan for Iraq in a news conference at the National Press Club. "My God, what we need is more people cluttering the stage!"

If clutter is what we need, Gravel, who represented Alaska in the Senate three decades ago and now struggles to rise above asterisk status in the polls, is willing to provide it. Last month, his antics dominated the first Democratic debate, to the horror of party officials. Yesterday, in an interview after his news conference at the National Press Club, he plunged fearlessly into topics that have hobbled the better-known presidential candidates.

Would he follow the lead of GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who disclosed on "60 Minutes" on Sunday that he did not have premarital sex?

"My God. Let's see, did I?" he asked himself, then paused. "Oh, yeah, I had some. And you know something? It wasn't bad."

Does he, like Romney, describe himself as a "lifelong hunter" who shoots varmints?

"What's a varmint? I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't have the stomach to kill anything, whether it's a fly or a bug."

Would he guess at the price of a loaf of bread, as Rudy Giuliani was forced to do?

"I don't buy bread. It's fattening. I buy bagels. You can get a good bagel at Cosi for a dollar-something."

Does he, like John Edwards, pay $400 for a haircut?

"I get it from Pietro, who used to be at the Hilton. . . . Pietro, I forget his last name, he is now in the, what's the one, the Shoreham? Not the Shoreham. Up on Massachusetts Avenue. God, it's -- no, not Massachusetts -- Connecticut."

The Marriott Wardman Park?

"That's it. That's where he is."

And what does he charge?

"Thirty-five dollars." The other candidates, he added, "were spending more for their haircuts than I was raising."

Gravel entered the race a year ago with no expectation that he would be taken seriously -- and that expectation has been met. Back to an asterisk in the latest Gallup poll after briefly crossing the 1 percent barrier, he is a percentage point behind the next-darkest horse, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and about 38 points behind the leader, Hillary Clinton.

But the 77-year-old candidate, who had planned to campaign on the sleepy platform of ballot initiatives, has found energy in opposing the Iraq war. And he skillfully used last month's debate to maximize his 90 minutes of fame, memorably declaring himself both a "senior statesman" and a "potted plant" in the same sentence.

As a result, his news conference yesterday attracted dozens of people, including antiwar celebrity Cindy Sheehan. Many were wearing T-shirts announcing "Impeach!" or "Veterans for Peace" and Gravel campaign buttons demanding "Troops Home Now." The candidate had splurged on a vinyl banner showing a computer-generated crowd cheering for him.

"This plan that I'm suggesting is guaranteed to end the war by Labor Day," he announced. Declaring that Democrats should "put aside comity," he advised lawmakers: "All they've got to do is talk to the leaders and say, 'Let's take the Gravel plan and get it passed.' "

The notion of Clinton or Barack Obama demanding passage of the Gravel plan was amusing, but no more than Gravel's other foreign policy views. He asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin is "much smarter than our president" and said Iran is "not a threat to us." The United States, he said, should tell Iran "we're sorry for what we did in 1952. . . . It'll work like magic."

Even the sympathetic crowd was skeptical that the author of the Gravel Doctrine would win the nomination. Sheehan asked if Gravel would consider joining a third-party ticket with Kucinich. "I'm going to get the Democratic nomination," the candidate answered, provoking hearty laughter.

There is something refreshing about the plain talk of the dark-horse candidate, whether he's speaking about evolution ("I think we at one point were fish coming out of the slime"), or gay rights ("people have to come out of the closet"), or identifying the prime minister of Kazakhstan ("I know who he is. I can't pronounce his name."). And Gravel has a barb for every foe. Obama: "Electing him would be like electing Hamlet." Clinton: "Just not fit to be president." Kucinich: "Like any other political person."

Candidate Asterisk has a message for all those who would regard him as "clutter": He has only begun to crowd the stage. "We're getting a real bump in money coming in" since the debate, he reported yesterday. "My voice is apparently resonating in the big states." And he seems to recall more than 700 people coming to one of his events. "I can't remember where," he quickly added.

Things are going so well, in fact, that Gravel, an Arlington resident, has rented a home in New Hampshire. "It's cheaper than going to a hotel, so I had a good deal," the presidential aspirant reasoned. And with at least seven more Democratic debates at which Gravel can steal the show, it's just a matter of time before he is getting $400 haircuts. "By my criteria," he said, "it's a big surge."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company