A blizzard has blown into northern Iowa with 40 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures. Trucks are jackknifing on the highways, and cars lie abandoned in ditches. But one Chevy Blazer barrels along at breakneck speed, a former race car driver at the wheel. In the passenger seat, in suit and tie, sits a presidential candidate, zipping between meetings with the Marshalltown Times-Republican and the Mason City Globe-Gazette. Neither snow nor wind nor gloom of polls can stay the presidential quest of Orrin Hatch.

How could they? For, in his breast pocket, the senator from Utah carries a letter from Pierre Salinger that he quotes to audiences. At the moment he is reading it into his cell phone, for a reporter from the Kansas City Star. "I feel very strongly that you are the best Republican candidate for president," wrote President Kennedy's press secretary. "You have done incredible work in the Senate for years, something that makes me feel that you would be an important president."

It's hard to picture George W. Bush or John McCain bragging about a letter from a Democrat famous for spinning plane-crash conspiracy theories on the Internet. But Hatch will take support wherever he can get it. "I thought it was pretty neat," says Hatch, who called Salinger to thank him for his $144 contribution.

Hatch's candidacy, never a likely proposition, isn't quite living up to expectations. Instead of a million "skinny cats" sending Hatch checks for $36, only 15,000 did. "That's about 985,000 less than I need," he allows. Instead of climbing to second or third in the polls, as Hatch hoped, he's dead last at sixth, with a whopping 1 percent, behind even radio commentator Alan Keyes and Christian activist Gary Bauer. Hatch figured voters would come to view Bush as unready and McCain as phony, and some have--but they still haven't warmed to Hatch, who suggests he'll quit if he can't place fourth or better in the Iowa caucuses Monday.

And now this: The senator's campaign consultants, led by Sal Russo, have dumped him. Hatch hired Russo's firm to run a soup-to-nuts campaign, directing strategy, organizing, television and press. The Russo gang quit earlier this month when Hatch turned down nearly a million dollars in public matching funds, for which the campaign proudly announced its qualification in November.

"Why would I turn to the taxpayers to finance my election?" he asks. Russo's firm told him that he'd look like a fool running around Iowa with no ads but the cheaply done infomercials he already ran. "It may be stupid, but that's how I am," says Hatch, riding through the blizzard with his volunteer driver. The campaign, which moved its "national headquarters" to West Des Moines with all of five paid staffers, will go broke in days. Hatch acknowledges it wasn't worth Russo's time without TV ads. "I don't blame them," he says.

As a result of all this, the mighty senator, lion of the Judiciary and Finance committees, is forced to live as an also-ran in Iowa, accepting even the lowliest appearances. He gets up early to be on a shock-jock radio show in which the host, immediately before Hatch's segment, is talking about "big mud flaps on a chick." His first question to Hatch is about Bob Dole and his "penile dysfunction," then a query about Hillary Clinton allegedly having sex with Vince Foster, then one about President Clinton allegedly raping Juanita Broaddrick, then something about "orgies going on in the White House." Hatch calmly responds with "It makes me sick" and "You're absolutely right," all the while struggling to weave in bits about his vast experience. ("I'm the author of the balanced-budget amendment!")

Hatch himself appreciates the irony of his position: one of the most serious men in Washington getting no respect on the campaign trail. "I'm starting to get the word out. My wife said just this morning, 'I hear you're running for president,' " Hatch quips at a speech to Principal Financial Group employees in Des Moines on Wednesday.

Instead of first-class tickets and lunches at La Colline, Hatch often finds himself flying in coach, middle row. Other candidates stay in luxury hotels; Hatch gets $59-a-night specials. When he hops into his Blazer on Wednesday, a Burger King fish sandwich is waiting for him. "It's still warm!" he delights. "I've had my first two Wendy's hamburgers in 15 years, and Taco Bell and Burger King," he said. "Junk food really does appeal to me." This is a guy, after all, who survived poverty in Pittsburgh. Even now, when a button fell off his coat before a New Hampshire event, Hatch, to the amazement of onlookers, pulled a sewing kit from his pocket and stitched it back on.

On Wednesday, Hatch is driving more than 100 miles through the snowstorm just for an interview with the 35,000-circulation Times-Republican at Mr. G's Restaurant in Marshalltown, and for another interview with the Mason City paper. There are no greeting parties, no supporters, no organization. The reporters, in person or on the phone, invariably inquire about the hopeless nature of his quest. Hatch is getting used to it. Wednesday night, it's Brian Williams on MSNBC. "He probably wants to know why I'm doing this since I can't win," Hatch says. "It's fascinating to people that I keep going."

What went wrong? Some reasons he lists are obvious: started late, didn't raise much money, from a small state, isn't exactly a live wire. And he complains of anti-Mormon discrimination from fundamentalist Christians.

But there's also an unusual amount of complacency in the electorate. Often, at this stage in the campaign, there's a sense of buyer's remorse, a feeling that all of the candidates are losers. But this time, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, fully 75 percent of Americans think one of the current candidates would make a good president, up from 40 percent in '92 and 57 percent in '96. Hatch figures that people, feeling fat and happy, aren't focusing on the election. "Let's call it a Ritalin experience," he says, eating an apple after the fish sandwich in the Blazer.

Hatch blames the press for his status as an also-ran, even though he knows reporters are just tracking the candidates' bank accounts and poll numbers. "Almost every interview I've had, they say, 'You're a giant in the Senate, why are you doing this? You don't have a chance.' " Hatch mentions this to most every crowd. "The media's all but written me off--they say it's a two-man race," he likes to say. "If I were a resident of Iowa and I wanted to send a message to the Eastern-liberal-establishment press, I'd vote for Orrin Hatch. This would startle the whole country."

That's for sure.

Hatch, many in Washington agree, is a decent, smart and powerful man. But as a candidate on the stump, the four-term senator doesn't exactly deliver a barn-burner. He tells Iowa crowds about "HCFA" and "penumbras and emanations" and the "strict-scrutiny view of any claim for quotas" and about how "It was not germane, so I had to get a supermajority"--as if he were addressing lobbyists. Mixed in is the aw-shucks language, "gimme a break," "I've gotta tell you," "doggone it." To the annoyance of his staff, Hatch continues to speak about himself in the third person: "Orrin Hatch has one litmus test . . . Orrin Hatch gets it done! . . . I gotta tell you, Orrin Hatch woulda voted with them . . . Orrin Hatch does have more experience and a better record of accomplishment . . . Orrin Hatch has stood up for the Second Amendment for 23 years."

Leaving Washington, where it feels like everyone knows his record, for Iowa, where nobody much cares, is a struggle for Hatch. The result is a candidate who blows his own horn. He utters the word "experience" hundreds of times a day, and often recites his legislative resume. "I had 41 bills in the last Congress," he tells the workers at Principal Financial. Then he proceeds to name his greatest hits--the nursing facility legislation, the Hatch-Waxman bill, "which actually created the generic drug industry," the Hatch-Harkin bill on dietary supplements, the "three AIDS bills along with Ted Kennedy."

"Let me just mention one more," he pleads, then names several: child health insurance legislation, the Satellite Home Viewer Act, the "cyber-squatting" bill. By the time he gets to the Digital Millennium Act, the hostess is signaling an end to the talk. As the crowd files out, one reporter grumbles: "I wanted to hear the rest of the 41 bills."

Hatch, during the recitation, is aware that he's gone too far in his self-promotion. "If you tell the truth, you're not lacking in humility," he tells the crowd. (Hatch, an accomplished songwriter, penned a campaign ditty titled "I May Be Vain, but I'm Not a Liar.") Later, in the Blazer, Hatch reproaches himself. "I started talking 1,500 miles an hour," he says. "I said to myself, 'Slow down,' but I couldn't. I worried I sounded arrogant, because I'm not."

In an ideal world, this boastfulness wouldn't be necessary. There was a time, not long ago, when a powerful senator entering the presidential race would be taken seriously. But legislative experience no longer defines the "serious" candidate. And it is difficult for Hatch, for the first time in 23 years, not to be taken seriously. "It absolutely kills me to have to do it," he says of the legislative boasts. "I hear people say, 'I know your name but I don't know who you are.' I think, my gosh, I've been there 23 years, I've done so many things for you that you don't even know about."

On the trail, Hatch seems incredulous that his achievements aren't known--or don't count for much. "I've been there, I've done it, I'm not just making promises." It burned Hatch up when conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly praised Steve Forbes as the leading anti-abortion candidate, while also mentioning Bauer. "She doesn't even mention me--the first to bring a constitutional amendment to the floor!" Hatch fumes. He was enraged to hear that media outlets were seeking a Bush-McCain debate. And it galls Hatch particularly that Keyes, Bauer and Forbes are put in the same category with him--or higher. "They have a right to run, but I believe you should be elected to something first," he often says.

Ever since Hatch announced his surprise run last summer, his candidacy has inspired something of a parlor game in Washington: Why does he do it? Even his closest allies were doubtful. "I said, 'Well, I feel anxious for you,' " says Kevin McGuiness, Hatch's former chief of staff who took a leave from his law practice to volunteer as campaign manager.

Some speculate that he's running for a Supreme Court nomination or appointment as attorney general. Some think he's doing it for a bit more TV time. Some say it's because he hates McCain (who "in particular does stick in my craw," he acknowledges). Still others think it's a secret plan to help Bush, by fragmenting the opposition. And, of course, there's the stated reason: The senator simply sees himself as more qualified than the other guys.

But there's another explanation that may outweigh the rest. Hatch is 65 years old, and this is perhaps the last time he could run for president. One gets the sense that he wants to tell his 19 grandchildren that he reached as high in life as he could, that he even had a go at the highest office in the land.

"If the people don't want me as president, I can live with that--in fact, I can easily live with that," Hatch says. Too easily, perhaps. "I will never regret doing this," the candidate says, looking at a map of Iowa and ticking off all the towns he's visited. Would he regret it forever if he didn't at least try to be president? "I would feel like I hadn't at least given it what I should."

McGuiness puts it this way: "It is better to try and fail than not to try at all. The only thing that holds you back is your pride, and once you get rid of the fear, eliminate the pride, you're liberated."

As he presses on through the snowstorm to another meeting with another skeptical small-town newspaper reporter, wondering if he can find a Wendy's baked potato for dinner, Hatch seems to have suppressed his pride fairly well. "Look, the Lord has never made my life easy. I didn't have enough to eat when I was young. I worked hard my whole life."

But then again, Hatch also makes things hard on himself: Surely he doesn't have to be out here in a snowstorm, campaigning for president and sleeping at the Mason City Holiday Inn. He could be tucking into a nice steak at the Palm. Hatch disagrees. "I feel I do have to be out here," he says. In a few days, mercifully, his obligation to posterity will be fulfilled--and Hatch can go back to being a giant again.