Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who likes to compose religious songs, wear loud ties, cut deals with liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennnedy (D-Mass.) and keep other politicians guessing, always seems to do things a little differently--sometimes a lot differently.
So, even as he told reporters last week that he will be seeking the Republican presidential nomination next year, Hatch conceded that it would likely take a miracle for him to succeed.
"I believe in miracles" and "it would probably take that to elect me," Hatch told reporters in the corridor outside the Senate chamber as he upstaged his own formal announcement of candidacy, planned for the next week or so.
"My life has always been uphill," he said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Asked in earlier interviews why he is running, Hatch joked, "Why not?"
But others are still asking why in light of the fact that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is running far ahead of 10 other GOP contenders and most of them have been campaigning and raising money for months. What's more, the skeptics say, there has been little if any clamor for a Hatch candidacy outside Utah.
The simple answer, according to colleagues close to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and four-term Senate veteran, is that Hatch is running because he regards himself as fully qualified for the presidency--at least as much so as those now running for it.
"Orrin's spent a lot of his time working with a number of presidents and he probably feels like a lot of people up here do: that they could do just as good a job," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the judiciary panel.
Even more to the point, Hatch, the strait-laced conservative and former Mormon bishop who loves to make the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, sees himself as the perfect fallback candidate if Bush falters.
"He believes--and certainly this is a possibility--that George W. Bush may stumble, and if he does stumble, [Hatch] has the credentials just as valuable as anyone else in the field," said his friend and colleague, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who has endorsed Hatch but is also helping Elizabeth Dole, who runs second to Bush in most polls.
In interviews yesterday on NBC and "Fox News Sunday," Hatch suggested that Bush faces a "high learning curve" on national issues but did not quarrel with Bush's disavowal of abortion litmus tests or disagree with him on anything else.
He stressed his humble roots, noting that he worked as a janitor to put himself through school and lived in a converted "chicken coop" for a time. He said he aimed to concentrate on overhauling Social Security and Medicare and strengthening national security policy, including counterterrorism. Noting that he has been attacked from left and right, he said, "I must be doing something right." He said he was not interested in the vice presidential nomination but did not rule it out.
Hatch's message, combining moral rectitude, conservative philosophy and a proven track record for working across political and ideological lines, could be compelling for a party that is suddenly without a clear front-runner, his boosters say.
But others believe that some of those already in the race, such as Dole, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or one of several more conservative contenders, are in a better position than Hatch to emerge in case of a Bush meltdown.
"It's impossible for [Hatch] to win the nomination," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "You could imagine the most bizarre, offbeat circumstances under which everyone else loses the nomination and only Orrin Hatch is left there to pick up the pieces." But not likely, he added.
As some others see it, Hatch, now 65, is feeling restless after 23 often-frustrating years in the Senate and figures it's now or never to move onto a broader stage. It may be particularly galling for Hatch to see McCain, with whom he has had rather distant relations in the Senate, mentioned as the likely beneficiary of a Bush collapse, some observers suggest.
Hatch himself hinted at the frustration factor in his pre-announcement musings last week when he said he was "tired of the divisiveness up here" on Capitol Hill and is running in part to help end it.
Tossing his hat in the ring at the last minute is nothing new for Hatch. Born in Pittsburgh as the son of a metal lather, Hatch moved to Utah and was a political neophyte when, as a Salt Lake City lawyer, he decided just before the filing deadline in 1976 to challenge an incumbent Democratic senator.
He won after tough primary and general election races and arrived in Washington with a reputation as a hard-edged partisan and ideologue. But, over the years, even as he maintained a staunchly conservative voting record on issues from abortion to taxes, he began teaming up with Kennedy and other Democrats on a variety of social welfare issues, including child care, health care for poor children, AIDS, legal protections for disabled people, hate crimes and jobs programs. In one of his most recent joint ventures with Kennedy, they combined in 1997 to try (unsuccessfully) to subsidize health insurance for low-income children by raising cigarette taxes.
Along the way, Hatch and Kennedy became friends as well as occasional political allies--surely one of the strangest and most enduring odd-couple relations on Capitol Hill.
All of this made Hatch a major player in the Senate but enraged many conservative activists, who regarded his cross-party alliances as heresy. It also created frictions with Republicans in the Senate, including other committee chairmen and members of the GOP leadership.
"People who were pleased saw growth and maturity; those who were not pleased thought he had just gone native," said Ross K. Baker, who watches Congress as a political science professor at Rutgers University.
But, on most fiscal, legal and cultural issues, Hatch has remained solidly conservative. He outraged liberals with his attacks on Anita F. Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during Thomas's 1991 confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court. He rarely dodges a fight with organized labor and has been a sharp critic of what he describes as racial "quotas."
He played an enigmatic role in President Clinton's impeachment trial, suggesting that Clinton could escape punishment by confessing and seeking redemption and then, when Clinton failed to take his advice, voting to remove him from office.
On judicial appointments, Hatch walks a narrow and often curvy line.
Democrats accuse him of dragging his feet in processing Clinton's nominations, while Republicans complain that he approves too many "liberal" judges. In 1997, hard-line Senate Republican conservatives almost succeeded in scaling back his powers in the judicial confirmation process. This year, Hatch held up all judicial nominations to press Clinton to appoint Ted Stewart, a political ally from Utah, to the federal bench in the state. Hatch has since begun clearing some of the nominations, apparently reassured that Clinton is moving toward nominating his friend.
The problem for Hatch is that his ideologically blurred positions leave him with a somewhat porous base of support. "I'm not exactly sure what his niche in the race is because I'm not sure what his niche in the party is," Rothenberg said. "For a guy who's been around this long . . . you'd think his image would be sculpted more deeply."
Hatch has begun fund-raising, focusing initially on his Utah financial base, including Mormon and high-tech resources, and he has hired two aides for New Hampshire, according to Sal Russo, a consultant who is helping launch the Hatch campaign.
Before deciding to run, Hatch took a poll that turned out to be encouraging, showing that he was relatively well known and could beat Vice President Gore, Russo added.
But Hatch, even though he may believe in miracles, is hedging his bets. Even as he gears up to run for the White House, Hatch intends to seek a fifth term in the Senate. For that, he is a sure bet.