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Dornan’s Presidential Bid Off to Bizarre Start : Politics: Governor of Delaware greets him dressed as pregnant woman. Long-shot campaign relies on family.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one ever expected that California Rep. Robert K. Dornan’s race for the White House would be routine.

Nor has it been. On his maiden voyage into the 1996 presidential campaign, the Garden Grove Republican took the train. And at the Wilmington, Del., station, the vehement critic of abortion and gay rights was greeted by a man dressed as a pregnant woman, holding a sign that read: “Dornan is the one.”

On second look, Dornan, 62, recognized that the stunt was being pulled by Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat. Carper, an old congressional colleague of Dornan’s, staged the gag with the state’s Republican Party.

So the congressman jovially went along with the joke. Borrowing a fast-paced tune from the musical “Oliver,” Dornan broke into song: “I’m reviewing the situation. Should I go out on that platform or hide like a coward in the car? What should I do? People elected a governor and I have a screaming transvestite in my ear.”

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It was one wry vignette along the campaign trail in what Dornan intends to be a deadly serious presidential bid that took him and his entourage of family members through New York and New Hampshire over the weekend.

Dornan’s mission goes beyond capturing the GOP presidential nomination--though that is implausible enough for a man who ranks near the bottom of the nine-member field. He also intends to erase the image of a bombastic, right-wing radical that he claims is a creation of the liberal news media.

There were no professional handlers or full-time campaign managers on this outing, which more closely resembled a family vacation than a presidential campaign. Most of the staff is volunteer. Advance work in New Hampshire was handled by the Young Americans for Freedom.

“People don’t understand, we are the team,” said daughter Robin Griffin, part of the Dornan entourage that included the congressman’s wife, Sallie, their five sons and daughters, nine grandchildren, and his former chief of staff, Brian Bennett.

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On the road, they pulled into a New Hampshire fast-food restaurant to strategize. “Until we get more money, for now, the Wendy’s restroom is our ‘War Room,’ ” said Robert Dornan Jr.

The family tells the candidate to stay focused, to quit being so laudatory of a competitor, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and talk about himself instead.

Outside Nashua High School, the nine-term congressman clenched his teeth and his fists, re-enacting an incident 20 years ago when his wife was hit on the chin in a political argument at the historic Concord Bridge in New Hampshire.

“No, no, no,” a son-in-law yelled out to him, worried that photographs of his storytelling will only embellish the combative image they are trying to downplay.

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The “real Bob Dornan,” the congressman finds himself repeating, is “the compassionate Bob Dornan, the fun-loving Bob Dornan.”

To a network television crew inquiring about his being far right: “Absolutely absurd!” he said, arguing that he’s the best candidate to move the Republican debate more to the center right on social issues.

To a New Hampshire TV reporter: “I am the center and (the GOP) is moving a little bit to the left.”

Standing on the steps of the Congregational Church in Exeter, Dornan spoke to the social issues that are the apex of his campaign theme: “Faith, Family, Freedom.”

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But he also turned to his favorite subject, President Clinton, and to former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who has generated controversy with his recent book admitting the mistakes of the Vietnam War. As Dornan discussed Clinton’s protests against the war, he mimicked the President’s Southern accent.

“Clinton is going to use McNamara’s book. . . . He says it vindicates him. Not hardly,” the candidate told about 75 people who had gathered on a chilly but sunny day. “Let the debate begin. Turn up the heat.”

The crowd’s applause was broken by a woman who shouted, “You weren’t there. You weren’t there.” A man a few feet away yelled out, “Tell the truth.”

But Dornan, who visited Vietnam as a combat photographer, responded: “I went eight times. . . . I will give you the facts.” He argued that “better men than Clinton” died in the war.

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Throughout the weekend, he referred to Clinton as “sleazy,” “draft-dodging,” “foul-mouthed,” “arrogant,” a President who “lied his way into the White House.”

Dornan portrayed himself as perhaps the only Republican candidate willing to take on the President. In Nashua, where he had planned to focus on Reaganomics and his proposals to shut down the Commerce Department and the Internal Revenue Service, Dornan returned to the subject of Clinton.

He promised supporters that they would not see “bimbos popping up” from his past.

On Easter Sunday, the congressman and his wife ended their first campaign tour by renewing their wedding vows on their 40th anniversary.

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Not your conventional campaign.


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