Mr. Smith Goes to the Campaign Trail
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page A8
Late last week, just a few hours after he cast his vote to convict President Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors, Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) sat at his desk in his Capitol Hill office contemplating his next move – a run for president.
Smith will be the first to admit that most voters do not know who he is. But he senses an urgency in the American people – an urgency for a leader who will bring back character, dignity and integrity to the White House. Bob Smith says he is that person. Today, at a high school in the town of Wolfeboro, where he once taught school, Smith will formally enter the 2000 presidential race and then embark on a tour of Iowa, which will hold the nation's first caucuses in a year.
In an interview last week, Smith said he was not exactly sure what he would say at his announcement because so much of his time and energy had been spent on Clinton's trial. But it would have a lot to do with character and conservative values.
"I've put my career on the line standing up for the pro-life [movement] . . . I've put it on the line standing up for gun owners. I've stood up for a strong national defense," Smith said. "I think people are looking for a role model, somebody they can look up to. I don't think it's the type of thing you go out and rant and rave about. I think it's something you demonstrate."
But are they looking for Bob Smith?
Smith starts off as a long-shot, even though he hails from the state that will hold the nation's first presidential primary a year from now. For the past couple years, state voters have debated the potential impact of Smith's entry into the race.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Woodburn takes Smith's candidacy as such a joke that last week he pledged to give $100 to the first GOP officeholder or leader to publicly endorse him.
Even among Republicans, there is a tendency to dismiss Smith's candidacy. Typical was Gene Chandler, an 18-year GOP state House veteran, who supported ex-Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander in the 1996 election, but is undecided this year.
When asked in Concord last week what he thought about the expanding crop of potential GOP candidates, Chandler said he was more excited than he's been in many presidential cycles. The field is a bumper crop of attractive politicians, he said, any of whom could proudly hold the Republican mantle as viable candidates in 2000. He reeled off the names of those he liked: Alexander, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, millionaire publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes.
When asked why he did not mention New Hampshire's own, Smith, Chandler paused, as if caught off guard, and stared directly ahead. "Uhhh, huh-huh, I have to be kind of careful what I say here," he said, chuckling a bit. "I think for the most part, he's been a pretty good senator. I just don't think right now that a lot of people see him as presidential."
Most polls in New Hampshire show Smith in the low single digits in the field of potential candidates. A Franklin Pierce College/WNDS-TV poll conducted last week, for example, said Smith was the favorite GOP primary candidate among 2 percent of respondents. He trailed far behind Dole, with 32 percent, and Bush, with 23 percent, and was sandwiched between conservative activist Gary Bauer, with 1 percent, and Alexander, also with 2 percent.
Smith says he is undeterred. "The polls, I don't think they mean anything, frankly," he said. "I'm not worried about polls because they are only snapshots of today. They are name recognition. They are very fluid. I'm not trying to apologize or make excuses for them. But as I've said before, if you want the pollsters to pick your president, then don't bother holding your primary."
Lois Bealieu, a supporter from Newmarket, N.H, agrees. "Believe me, when he . . . explains his issues and where he stands, people are going to get behind him," she said in an interview earlier this month at a Christian Coalition event in Manchester. "He's been there for a long time, and he's always been right on all the right issues."
But Bealieu remains the anomaly. In interviews with more than two dozen state residents and political activists in recent weeks, most said they doubted Smith could win the primary, much less the nomination.
"I've talked to a lot of people, and obviously he is behind in the polls," said Mark Pappas, chairman of the Manchester GOP chapter. "I don't really know what it is, but he's not getting a lot of support."
Smith has been counted out before and came back to prevail. In 1996, Smith was lagging in the polls in his bid for reelection against former representative Dick Swett (D-N.H.). Swett attacked Smith for voting for a congressional pay raise. He portrayed Smith's position on abortion and other issues as too far to the right for New Hampshire.
The battle was nasty and personal, and both men's reputations suffered among voters. Smith defeated Swett, but the showing of the state's senior senator was subpar: He received 49 percent of the vote to Swett's 46 percent. Democrats have been eager to challenge him again and believe he would be among the most vulnerable senators in the country if he sought reelection in 2002.
But Smith has a loyal constituency in New Hampshire that has returned him to office time and again the past 13 years. He's won three House elections and two Senate elections over that time. Smith said his appeal has always been among the conservative grass-roots base of the party.
"I'm a country music Republican, not a country club Republican," said Smith, noting that he had formed a campaign committee that asks supporters to "invest in America by investing in Bob Smith. And it's $20 a share. Our goal is to get a million people to buy a $20 share in Bob Smith."
He continued: "We've done very well with that so far. The object here is to generate grass-roots support, that Main Street should run America, not Wall Street, not the pundits, not the pollsters, not the talking heads, and not the editorial boards, frankly."
Carolyn Scanlon of Newfields, N.H., who has volunteered on Smith's campaigns, said Smith draws from the active base of party loyalists who are attracted to his conservative message that opposes abortion and supports home schooling and school choice, among other issues. "He's got 15,000 to 20,000 grass-roots names on a list that he can call like that," she said, snapping her fingers. "He's been on the right side of all the issues."
For the past few years, Smith has worked to develop a political infrastructure in Iowa, where voters could be more receptive than those in New Hampshire to his message. Iowa is considered more socially conservative of the two states, with a more engaged base of Christian activists.
"People who know Senator Smith like the fact that he is a noncompromising conservative," said Dave Nelson, his Iowa field director. "The pro-life crowd here is very happy he is going to run."
Few of Smith's bills have made it to law. But Smith's supporters say his impact has been elsewhere. His voting record has been staunchly conservative – certainly the most conservative of the relatively moderate northeastern senators – and usually ranks around 100 percent with the American Conservative Union.
In the mid-1990s, he sponsored a bill to ban late-term abortions, which opponents refer to as "partial-birth" abortion. In his floor speech, Smith said abortion was "one of the great issues of the day, much as slavery was 100 years ago."
Smith lists his antiabortion efforts among his proudest achievements in Congress, even though his bills have generally failed on the floor. "I tell people, 'I'm not trying to get in your face' on abortion," he said. "I'm trying to get in your hearts."
Smith, a Vietnam War veteran, also gained national attention in the early 1990s for his efforts to seek information about U.S. prisoners of war or those listed as missing in action. And he vehemently opposed the successful efforts of the Clinton administration and Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
From his seat on the Armed Services Committee, he has championed increases in defense spending, even while he opposes virtually all other areas of the budget. His fiscal conservatism has endeared him to voters in New Hampshire, a state with no sales or income taxes.
But his sometimes blunt and outspoken style in the Senate has made him a bit of an outsider in that chamber. And even his supporters acknowledge that he is not as polished or television-savvy as his opponents. That is fine with Smith, who fancies himself as a real-life, modern-day version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
"I'm an optimist, like Jimmy Stewart in that movie," Smith said. "He believed that America is good and the American people are good and they deserve good leaders."
"I think my credentials are as good as anyone else out there," he said. "Most of the candidates out there running have never been elected to anything. They're out there doing a lot of speeches, a lot of talking. But I've been down in the trenches, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, in the dust and the dirt of the arena."
Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company