Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), proclaiming himself "the best of all the rest," launched a long-shot bid for the presidential nomination yesterday, adding another strongly conservative voice to the ever-expanding GOP field.
Dornan, 62, whose reputation in the House rests on his free-swinging debates with liberals, presented himself as a "mainstream Republican" who would press everyone in the race to make the 1996 campaign a crusade against the "cultural meltdown" he said is "poisoning" American society and undermining family life.
The red-haired former broadcaster was surrounded at the ceremony by 16 family members, including nine grandchildren. He made his announcement outdoors at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in downtown Washington, because, he said, crime is the nation's No. 1 problem and a symptom of the moral crisis in the land.
Dornan, who originated the POW-MIA bracelets worn by countless Americans to honor servicemen captured or missing in the Vietnam War, dedicated his campaign "to those friends who disappeared into the mists of Southeast Asia," singling out by name a Medal of Honor winner whose father, Dornan said, "refused to shake Bill Clinton's hand in the White House."
A former Air Force jet pilot and ardent advocate of defense projects since his election to the House in 1976, Dornan caused a furor in January when he charged on the House floor that Clinton "gave aid and comfort to the enemy" by participating in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the 1960s. He was reprimanded and denied speaking privileges for the rest of the day.
Obviously aware of his reputation for being the pit bull of the Republican right, Dornan described himself as "an open-minded, loving person" and invited reporters covering the announcement to talk with staff members and family members who made up much of the crowd and confirm that "I never yelled at them."
"On the floor of the House, I've been tough -- as tough as Patrick Henry," he said. "If someone is not indignant about the cultural meltdown in this country . . . it is someone who does not understand what is going on."
Dornan, who has been a vocal opponent of abortion rights and gay rights, said emphasis on such "cultural issues" was the main explanation for GOP gains in 1994 and held the key to the 1996 presidential race. He said the budget deficit could also be defined as "a moral issue" because of the unfairness of passing on the burden of debt to the next generation.
The Orange County congressman joins television commentator-columnist and former White House aide Patrick J. Buchanan and Alan Keyes, a former State Department official, on the far end of the rightward-leaning presidential field.
Although he grew up in the heart of the movie industry, Beverly Hills, Dornan condemned the film and TV industry and what he called the "debased culture of Hollywood" for the "filth" he said it puts out.
Referring to similar comments earlier this week by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) on his first swing as an announced presidential candidate, Dornan quipped, "I'm glad Bob Dole is reading some of my old speeches. He was brilliant. I think I'm already having an effect."
Dornan was effusive about Dole, calling him "an inspirational American" and conceding that "none of us may even come close to catching" Dole in the compressed schedule of primaries and caucuses next winter. "Winning is not everything, if you can advance the issues," he said.
His only skeptical comment about Dole was, "I'm not sure he will be able to divide himself between a hot presidential race and keeping track of 99 senators. After all, Bill Clinton only has to keep track of Hillary."
Dornan was far less kind toward California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), an undeclared presidential aspirant who defeated Dornan in the 1982 Senate primary. He said Wilson was "far more of a politician than I am," because Wilson will change his stands to match the polls. He criticized Wilson for "putting through the largest tax increase in the history of the 50 states" in his first year as governor and said that as "a country-club Republican," Wilson favors abortion rights to reduce the number of children being born to impoverished mothers.
"I never dreamed he'd pull a Clinton," Dornan said, referring to Wilson's repudiation of his 1994 campaign promise to serve out his second term as governor, rather than run for president. "It was a shocker that he broke his promise faster than Bill Clinton did."
Dornan has been a successful fund-raiser for his House campaigns, but admitted he would not come close to matching Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) in finances. He has built some name recognition as an occasional fill-in for talk show host Rush Limbaugh, but lags behind Buchanan, who ran in the 1992 primaries, in that regard.
Paul Weyrich, a veteran conservative activist, said: "I think Dornan will have his chief impact on the other candidates in the race by raising issues and making attacks when they won't. I think he hurts Phil Gramm more than anyone else. He seems to have a real visceral reaction to Gramm and compares Gramm to Clinton as a draft-dodger, which I think is very unfair."
Conservative strategist William Kristol said, "I don't think it hurts Dole to have fragmentation on the right."
Others announced or expected to enter the race include Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. CAPTION: Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), with wife Sallie, left, and other family members, announces presidential campaign.