Wide-eyed and politically a babe in the woods by his own account. Bill Bronson wasn't discovered by the New Right. He discovered it for himself.
Bronson, a boyish-looking 38-year-old airline pilot - an evangelical admirer of Ronald Reagan who quotes Davy Crockett and identifies with erstwhile former football star Rep. Jack Kemp R-N.Y. wandered into politics almost by accident.
He met former President Ford's oldest son, Michael, while studying at a theological seminary and soon found himself in the unenviable role of being the 1976 Republican candidate against entrenched Democratic Rep. Michael J. Harrington in Massachusetts overwhelmingly Democratic Sixth Congressional District.
In an unlikely turn of events. Bronson now finds himself the subject of what's-the-question-to-politicians.
The answer is Bill Bronson. What is the question?
The question, in this case, is who is the great hope of the New Right in New England?
Or, who could possibly make four-term incumbent Harrington hear the footsteps of a serious challenger and force the liberal enfant terrible of the House - the quintessential noncompromiser - to lower his voice on substantive global issues and work the precincts of his district like never before?
It was Harrington, after all, who won his way to Congress in 1969 complaining about the narrowness of his Republican predecessor's obsession with constituent service and his unwillingness to tackle the social and moral issues of his time.
It was Harrington who persistently embraced the most volatile issues of the day - Vietnam, CIA chicanery in Chile, defense spending, morality in government, gun control.
And it was Harrington who, while resolutely sticking to his many deep and vocal convictions developed the unpopular image in his northeastern Massachusetts district of being more an internationalist than a local congressman.
Voters seemed to be demanding Salem first, Chile second. Their restlessness was translated in the electoral process in 1976, when Harrington won reelection with the slimmest margin since his first congressional campaign in 1969.
Now Harrington is prowling his district like a freshman city councilman, which he was in Salem in 1960.
One night he is at a local high school, discussing a regional health plan, and the next morning he is meeting the elderly in Gloucester, passing out a new "senior citizens" newsletter." Then he is flying to Washington on behalf of local fishermen to meet with Commerce Secretary Juanita M. Kreps, and later he is back in his district trying to find a vacant building for use by a job development program.
"It's true, I haven't worked this hard in four or five years," concedes Harrington, who quickly adds that he relishes the role.
The instrument of this metamorphosis is Bronson, the implausible candidate who has made the sixth district a target not only of the Republican State Committee, but also of the Washington network of conservative fund-raising groups whose money will determine this year how real a phenomenon is the so-called New Right.
"At this time, the sixth district will be the target seat not only for Massachusetts, but for New England. Last year it was the Mason-Drinan race, and this time it will be Bronson and Harrington," said Republican State Chairman Gordon Nelson, referring to the 1976 challenge of Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) by Vietnam war hero Arthur Mason.
"Bill Bronson is a strong candidate. He's a clean-cut guy, conservative but not abrasive. He'll get the support he needs," added Nelson.
Howard Phillips, executive-director of the Washington-based Conservative Caucus, said, "I believe Harrington's going to be as much a target as anyone in the country. Bill Bronson will get all the help we can give."
Paul Weyrich, head of the Committee for Survival of a Free Congress, voiced similar support for Bronson, and suggested that other conservative political action committees would follow suit.
Bronson's campaign organizers said they are planning on $70,000 from the national conservative fund-raising groups. They are negotiating with a Chicago direct mail firm to raise much of the balance.
At a glance, it would seem Harrington had little to worry about, in spite of the conservative movement's enthusiasm.
His father, Joe Harrington, was a political fixture in the sixth district, a judge, state legislator, mayor of Salem and ally of Rep. Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. At 23, the son was a Salem city councilman, at 27 a state legislator, and at age 33 he emerged as the first Democrat since 1875 to be elected in the district.
In 1969, upon the death of Republican Rep. William H. Bates, Harrington defeated state Sen. William F. Saltonstall for the House seat in a special election. In 1970 he defeated conservative Republican Howard Phillips by 43,000 votes; in 1972 he was re-elected with 62 percent, and two years later was again re-elected, this time without any opposition.
But 1976 proved to be a rude awakening for Harrington when Bronson, a politicl neophyte who was virtually unknown in the district, ran a shoe-string campaign and won 42 per cent of the vote.
Bronson spent only $44,000 and won 92,000 votes, while Harrington spent $120,000 and won 115,000, making Bronson the second most successful congressional challenger in the state, behind Mason.
Harrington attributes the narrowed margin, in part, to a poorly funded and organized campaign, saying, "We didn't understand we were in a fight. When you've been re-elected without opposition, it's hard to convince [contributors] you need money. That's something that is not going to happen this time."
He also acknowledged that since Bronson was so unknown, much of the vote had to reflect opposition to Harrington more than support of the Republican. It was, Harrington said, a "punishment vote."
While Harrington carried the lopsidedly Democratic and heavily blue-collar city of Lynn by 2-to-1, he lost Danvers, the district's largest town, for the first time. He narrowly won his home city of Salem, but lost to Bronson the ward in which he was raised.
The catalyst for the anit-Harrington vote that year, according to political observers and by Harrington's own assessment, was the array of liberal and highly controversial causes he had championed.
He was bitterly criticized in the House for discussing with a reporter secret CIA testimony on the agency's role in the 1973 coup that resulted in Chilean President Salvador Allende's death.
Moreover, Harrington's defense spending position hurt him with factory workers in defense plants in the district, and he found himself unpopular with the 65 percent of the electorate that defeated a stringent state referendum on gun control. He also found himself on the unpopular side of a referendum on state takeover of power generating plants in Massachusetts. The power proposal was rejected overwhelmingly.
"These aren't your everyday safe and happy issues. There was bound to be a backlash," said one of Harrington's political strategists.
For Bronson, the strategic question next year will be how much of his 42 percent vote in 1976 was fleeting, anti-Harrington sentiment arising from the volatile issues, and how much is residual Republicanism that can be counted on again.
Bronson's campaign manager, Lowell D. Weeks, who two years ago ran briefly for Republican Rep. Bill Cohen's seat in Maine when it looked as if Cohen would seek Democratic Sen. Edmund S. Muskie's seat, thinks organization and money will spell the difference for Bronson.
"Last time, we got a total of $2,500 from the national and state (Republican) committees, and some of it reached us on election day. He (Bronson) did pretty well, don't you think?" asked Weeks.
Bronson said this time he is planning a $200,000 campaign. With no primary opposition announced as yet, he said, it is all likely to be used against Harrington, who said he will probably spend about $150,000.
Bronson said - and several Washington-based conservative fund-raising groups confirmed - that he will receive substantial outside help in this campaign in order to build a much needed political organization.
Also, Bronson, a Delta Air Lines first officer, said he took only three days unpaid leave in the last campaign, sandwiching other appearances in his flight schedule. This time, he said, he will take time off to campaign full time.
Bronson said his strategy is to try to retain the anti-Harrington vote of 1976, while building a new base of middle-class voters who feel squeezed between high taxes and an escalating cost of living.
"The whole liberal mentality developed here during the Vietnam war, but historically Republicans have shown they can overcome the Democratic enrollment," Bronson said, citing former Govs. Francis Sargent and John Volpe and Republican Sen. Edward W. Brooke.
Asked if Harrington is less vulnerable now than in 1976, Bronson acknowledged, "Probably, but only to the extent that voters have short memories, and we intend to remind them.
"Mike's base in the cities is weak. They came down hard on him in the referenna, and people still think he's more concerned with the other side of the world than he is with the sixth district," Bronson added.
"He's too impatient to be a member of the (congressional) team. He says, 'Play my way or I'll take my ball and go home.' Well, in my view. I'll play on the team. I'd like to put a few (Democrats) in the penalty box and even the odds, but I wouldn't try to be a maverick or one-man band," Bronson said.
For his part and that of his strategists. Harrington sees the problem as one involving image, and he seems determined to fix it. While always maintaining a respectable constituent service system in both his Salem and Washington offices. Harrington admits a need to be seen and heard more in person. The irony of his image problem is that Harrington never has found a home in Washington, preferring instead to commute to his home near here, and his critics frequently criticize him for low attendance in the House at roll call time.
Harrington has been successful, to some degree, in softening his internationalist image by being active as chairman of the Northeast Coalition of State and Federal Legislators, and by forcefully advocating economic assistance to the beleaguered region.
He has also hired veteran political consultant Frank O'Brien to run his campaign, starting with the expected September primary challenge by Democratic state Rep. James E. Smith, who has said "urban and domestic emphasis" will be the thrust of his campaign.