The Buick LeSabre's humming, doing 75 down a deserted stretch of highway that knifes through a forbidding sea of North Country oak and pine. We've got a young true believer behind the wheel and The Candidate riding shotgun.
They're talking electoral revolution.
And the right to buy and bear arms.
And the Constitution and our endangered national sovereignty and the holocaust of abortion and what the heck ever happened to God and the Republican Party anyway . . .
"I'm pro-gun, pro-life, pro-God and pro-Constitution, and if my Republican Party can't get it straight on that, I'm ready to go third party." The Candidate, a very large man crammed into a small seat, cracks a kick-back smile.
He tries to wheel around in that seat to make a point to a reporter. "That's my strength, you know: I'm a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy."
That is the truth.
And so is this: Big Bob Smith, U.S. Senator Smith, is having one hell of a good time running for president of the United States.
He's a two-term Republican senator, a conservative man in a conservative suit from the conservative state of New Hampshire, and the personification of a long-shot presidential candidate. He registers at about 2 percent in national polls. But that's all right, so much the better, okay by him.
Being a top contender isn't so great, either.
He was in a tight reelection race in 1996. He raised a ton of money, and the Republican Party gave him more and his headquarters crawled with all manner of spin merchants and consultants and pollsters and field directors and coordinators and . . .
God bless 'em, he pulled out a close one. But it made him a nervous wreck.
"Those pollsters, they're always calling and they've always got something figured out, the correct way to talk to the 25 percent of males who are 55 years or older and collect Social Security, the right position for the 13 percent of women under 32 or some such.
"Sugar it all down and what've you got? A bunch of gobbledygook."
Those big shoulders heave a shudder.
"I was uptight every hour of every day."
It's so much more fun running for president. No consultants, no nothing. Just Smith, his views and the road.
"I don't have any hired guns; it's all true believers. I'm on my message and I'm incredibly relaxed, I'm telling you."
In the long shadow cast by the front-running prep boy from Texas, there are, in essence, two Republican primaries. There's the bake-off among moderate-to-conservative Republicans--Sen. John McCain, Rep. John Kasich, Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander--to see if anyone can slow down Texas Gov. George W. Bush. That's the contest that sets the Republican Establishment to purring and young operatives to dreaming of that corner office on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Then there's the right-wing hoedown, a red-meat affair that boils down to just one thing: who's to the right of whom.
Smith, 58, is an underdog in that contest, too. He's up against Dan Quayle, the former vice president who grew up in Indiana and now lives on an Arizona golf course, and Steve Forbes, who has a net worth of approximately $18.45 trillion. Then there's Pat Buchanan, the right's four-year cicada, who twice a decade emerges from his Beltway cocoon to play a fire-breathing populist in the Republican primaries. Then there's Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer.
It's tough comp. Smith doesn't have a mother lode of inherited wealth, and he's no made-for-prime-time Ken Doll candidate, either.
He is a 6-foot-6, 280-pound former high school history teacher with a mountain ridge of a nose and a body that calls to mind a duckpin with legs. His comb-over is like a thatched roof with some of the thatch missing. And he's got an aversion to rope-a-dope political patter.
In the Senate, he wielded a pair of scissors and repeatedly stabbed a plastic fetus to illustrate the pain of "partial birth" abortions. In somewhat the same spirit, Smith is very committed to giving you his most candid views.
He's on CNN's "Crossfire" and a liberal sputters: Isn't there any form of gun control you favor? "A steady hand," Smith replies.
He's at Dartmouth and a young student asks about rich and poor public schools.
"Everyone can't make a million dollars, and everyone can't drive a Cadillac," he says. "To try to totally equalize is socialism and it's not America."
Another student asks him to reconcile his pro-life and pro-death-penalty beliefs. "Capital punishment certainly existed in Christ's time. He was a victim of it."
The United Nations? The "globalists" are sucking our sovereignty away. The IMF? Ditto. The tax code? Junk it. Supreme Court judges? They will be pro-life.
"I'm not going to BS you," Smith says unnecessarily. "I took a few shots after I declared [for president] because people didn't take me seriously. Well, when I asked my wife to marry me, I didn't think about who was number two. I started at zero in the polls, so I can't get much lower. I plan on being president and I'm not losing my message."
The LeSabre swoops down the Merrimack Valley, and a beet-red Smith chug-a-lugs iced tea. He's trudged through three Memorial Day parades in the 92-degree heat of a too-early summer. Now he's got a barbecue.
He catches a look at himself in a mirror.
"Wow. You do all this marching, and then you're supposed to look fresh when you smell like a bear."
The car pulls up and a couple of guys in shorts and Hawaiian shirts walk out to greet him. The bear straightens his tie and clambers out . . .
It's barbecue smoke, sun-bleached picket fences, scrub pine, rusty campers in the back yard and heat that feels like a nail driven through the top of your skull. A boombox blasts "Anchors Aweigh" at top volume.
This isn't the postcard New Hampshire enshrined in a thousand covered-bridge television stand-ups, the white-steepled fakery beloved by political reporters. This is Smith's political base, and it's real-deal New Hampshire. Live free or die under the sun tarp.
A few of the men and women here work at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in town. Others labor in heating and electrical-repair businesses. Quite a few more have remodeled themselves and now swim in the pixelated stream of the computer age.
Like most New Hampshirites, they don't know from cows. Many hail from somewhere else--drawn by the siren song of low taxes, affordable homes and jobs. (Smith is no less a product of American migrations. He grew up on a New Jersey farm, got a degree in government at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and moved to New Hampshire from Riverside, Calif.)
This crowd gave its heart and soul to Buchanan last time. He took them nearly to the mountaintop, winning the New Hampshire primary, rumbling about a third-party revolution. Then Buchanan went back to work for Ted Turner.
So they're shopping for a new prophet. David Thurman, a lean software marketer with a gray beard and a black National Rifle Association cap pulled low, talks about what he sees and hears out there.
"Gun owners on the defensive, people lost the right to discipline their kids, these crazy court decisions--you listen to talk radio and hear about the assault on the individual and you wonder what's happening," Thurman says.
It's to this fellowship that Smith speaks. His tie is turned inside out, and his voice sounds scratchy over the small hand-held microphone. But the big man looks and sounds just fine to this crowd.
"Folks, we agree on what counts," Smith says. "We agree on life, we agree on guns, we agree on God. I'm a country-music Republican, not a country-club Republican."
Some war whoops, framed in those hAAAhd New England vowels. "Speak your mind, Bob! Tell 'em what you feel!"
"Look, guys, we're in trouble here in America," Smith continues. "I'm for America, I'm not for the Republican Party. If a Republican Party doesn't do it, maybe they should go the way of the Whigs. They're failing us."
Smith honors Ronald Reagan as a conservative touchstone, but his vision, like that of his fellow arch-conservatives, contains little of the former president's utopian optimism. Smith portrays a country where "prayer is out, drugs and gangs are in." If Americans are happy with the nation, that's a "pretty serious indictment of our people."
It's a spinal tap into the anxieties of thousands of conservative activists who fear that the Republican fat cats want to pasteurize the party platform and excise the righteous stuff on abortion and guns. Smith, with his true-believer's rap, is pulling in more than $37,000 a day, with an average donation of about $34. A few prominent political activists have flocked to his standard in Louisiana and Iowa, but he's light-years behind the fund-raising pace of Bush and Dole.
Revolutionary kindling is hard to come by when the economy's plump. "People aren't on edge, they aren't angry," Smith acknowledges. "It's harder to thrust things in their face."
The hazard for the Republican Right is that they will get lost in a closed circuit of true believers.
Andrew Gaudreau sits in a lawn chair as Smith talks of Chinese spies selling nuclear technology to the Iranians and Libyans. ("We executed the Rosenbergs for less," Smith notes.) At this, Gaudreau, who has a rather intense aspect, rises to his feet.
"Senator Smith, when will Clinton be executed? This is a serious question--"
And just this once, Smith sidesteps it.
It's 6 p.m. and The Candidate's waxed. His feet hurt, his neck is barn red. But there's this POW/MIA vigil in Portsmouth . . . an hour and a half away . . . the vets would love the senator to come . . .
It's one of those existential political moments.
Smith served on a Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. His father flew missions in the South Pacific during World War II and was killed in action two days before the candidate's fourth birthday. So Smith is relentless in demands that the Pentagon and Vietnam account for missing soldiers.
So he seals himself back inside the car and takes off.
"You really come to respect the guys who do these POW vigils. There's nothing popular about 'em anymore."
A curious man, Smith. "Bumbling Bob," the Democrats call him. "The abominable no-man." It's all nasty, and some of it cuts near bone; he's the most reliable anti-Clinton vote in the Senate, a fervent impeachment man and quixotic in his passions. He leads a movement of one in trying to stop NASA, on humanitarian grounds, from sending Russian monkeys up in space for biological research.
But he's fiercely loyal to his causes--veterans, defense and anti-abortion--and serious enough about principle to vote down a bill containing $20 million for New Hampshire roads when he smelled too much pork in the barrel. He's woven the iconoclastic persona into a successful 14-year national political career, including three terms in the House.
The Buick pulls into Portsmouth, another of those old fishing cities that now thrive on a diet of ice cream and latte parlors, bookstores and boutiques. It's very cute, and pretty liberal Democratic. Another piece of old New Hampshire that isn't.
Smith swings stiff-legged across the plaza to North Church Congregational. There are 15 graying, uniformed veterans and the dolorous sound of a color guard changing. "Left, left, left . . . "
Five tourists lick ice cream and eye this lumbering man. Smith talks briefly.
"I know the crowd's small," he tells them. "But the best people in Portsmouth are here."
He shakes every hand, and winches himself back into his car for the drive back.
The Third-Party Man
The shiv slides in carefully, expertly. Tom Rath's been at this far too long not to know how to send this message.
"It would be regrettable, and not very wise, for the senator to withdraw from the party, and it would not be helpful to his future," says Rath, a prominent New Hampshire Republican and national party committeeman. "As his comments get more extreme, people begin to wonder about him. There is a high degree of unhappiness."
Smith's third-party fulminations amuse precisely no one in New Hampshire's GOP. Its members hold party loyalty rather dear, as they had a rough run recently. Democrats control the state Senate and governorship, and a bipartisan array of legislators--who are paid $100 a year--imposed the first-ever statewide property tax this year.
"A lot of people move here for lower taxes, and then comes their first town meeting and what do they want? Curbside garbage pickup," says state Republican Chairman Steve Duprey. "I'm trying to convert these people to our no-tax ways, but it's hard work."
Some suggest that Smith take a gander at his last election--he won a three-way race with 49.4 percent of the vote--as another harbinger of change. But he's pledged to campaign against any Republican who voted for a statewide tax and against a ban on partial-birth abortions.
"Anyone who wants to run against these RHINOs"--Republicans in Name Only--"I'll help you," Smith tells that crowd at the barbecue. "We should defeat every one of them--then make them watch a partial-birth abortion."
Then he paints the struggle on a broader canvas: "If I take the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-military people out of the Republican Party, there isn't one anymore."
All this yak-yak gives the Republicans a big pain. Smith's friends on the editorial board at the Union Leader, a beacon of paleo-conservatism, have suggested that the big man pull a reverse Jesse Ventura and abandon politics for wrestling. But here's the problem for Republicans: Smith just doesn't care. He's already announced he might launch a third-party candidacy on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia.
Two of his three children are grown now; his wife's a co-revolutionary. If he appalls the party aristocrats, if the hierarchy moans and groans, it's just fertilizer on his fields.
Smith's strapping himself into the Buick LeSabre again, a politician errant in search of registered voters.
"I'm keeping my powder dry, but if you join a revolution, you better be prepared to get shot at," he says by way of goodbye. "This is either history in the making or a career-ender."
CAPTION: "I started at zero in the polls, so I can't get much lower," says Sen. Bob Smith. "I plan on being president and I'm not losing my message."
CAPTION: Bob Smith, waving the flag at James Mastricola school in Merrimack, N.H.