Dornan’s Bid for Presidency Up in the Air


If Orange County Rep. Robert K. Dornan’s Republican presidential campaign ends soon--and he himself has acknowledged that he will make that call by October--he may look back to a night last weekend when his plane was hopelessly flying in circles over Chicago.

As most of his nine GOP rivals were serving up beer, barbecue and celebrities to the 10,000-plus party activists gathered in Iowa for a news media-saturated straw poll, Dornan’s plane--at the mercy of bad weather--was about to be rerouted to Peoria, Ill.

“I told the stewardess, ‘Go tell the pilot you’ve got a presidential candidate who’s back in the pack and give me a break. Can’t he orbit up here a little bit longer?’ ” the congressman from Garden Grove would recall.

When he finally did arrive in Ames, Iowa, half the crowd was gone, two-thirds had already voted in the straw poll and no one was expecting the notoriously feisty Dornan to show up. Dornan beat only Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who was jeered by the crowd over his support for abortion rights, and whose campaign did not actively compete for votes.


Dornan’s plea to the flight attendant goes to the heart of the question facing his seemingly-marooned campaign: How long can he continue to orbit in the same air space as the GOP presidential favorites?

Dornan is out of money and almost running out of time to turn his prospects around. About the only thing he has plenty of is the raw energy he draws from his enjoyment of being a member of the presidential pack.

He generally dodges questions about his campaign timetable. But after his speech in Iowa last Saturday night, he conceded that the “clock is ticking.”

As the only candidate who would be forced to give up his current office if he remains in the Republican race, Dornan recently said he would decide by October whether to keep trying to push the campaign debate toward social conservative issues, or file for reelection to his 46th House District seat in central Orange County. Some analysts predict he will choose the latter course.


“You cannot come in ninth [in the straw vote] and do many things to stay in the race very long,” said James P. Pinkerton, a George Bush Administration aide now lecturing at George Washington University. “He has a filing deadline that puts a real ceiling on him. . . . He would be the better bet to go home and take care of his seat.”

But just as he promised last April when he announced his underdog bid for the presidency, Dornan, 62, has left no doubt in recent speeches that if he goes down, he will go down fighting with his boots on.

“I’m hearing people who want to be the commander in chief talking about things I’ve already done,” Dornan told the crowd in Iowa. “What you have a right to ask for in your nominee for the presidency is a consistent, charging conservative who . . . is candid, is outspoken, and when the emperor has no clothes, will point at that person and say ‘That person is a liar.’ ”

He took shots at his foes and tried to establish the relevance of his candidacy: “Yes, I AM influencing the message in this campaign.”

The speech, Pinkerton observed, sounded like a “eulogy for his own candidacy.”

Dornan, known for his fiery speeches on the House floor and verbal attacks on President Clinton, acknowledged from the start the long odds against his winning the GOP nomination. He did not have the front-runner status of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, nor Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s early money. Except for family members, Dornan also lacked a national campaign organization.

But he believed that once the public heard his passionate stump speeches against America’s “moral decay,” he would pick up enough donations to stay in the race through the first important contests in February: the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

His problem, analysts agree, is that he has found his message obscured by other candidates stressing conservative themes--Gramm, political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, and former Maryland radio talk show host Alan Keyes, who frequently has upstaged his rivals on oratorical skills alone.


“Keyes was out there first giving the pure anti-abortion message and Buchanan has great name identification,” said GOP strategist William Kristol. “Dornan was never able to find a role.”

Even though Dornan is one of the top fund-raisers in the House, his last presidential campaign finance report filed in July showed him raising only $144,109. It was the lowest amount of the nine candidates in the race, and far below the $9.3 million reported by Dole. Dornan’s national committee also showed a $119,161 debt, including $38,000 he loaned his campaign, and it lacked the broad-based support needed to qualify for federal matching funds.


“I think he was a victim of his own honesty in assessing the [small] chance of his own campaign,” said Brian O’Leary Bennett, a former Dornan staffer who remains a close friend. “If you continue to repeat it, you are going to sap the enthusiasm of people who would fall on their swords for you.”

No money meant no grass-roots organizations in early primary states, and thus no standing as a “serious” candidate.

Dornan’s lack of visibility on the campaign trail was vividly illustrated in a recent edition of the American Political Network’s “Hotline.” The daily computer newsletter listed the weekend campaign schedules of the candidates, most of whom were hopscotching from Maine to California. Next to Dornan’s name was the notation: “As if . . .”

With a little more organization, he might have made a better showing at the weekend’s gathering in Iowa, which clearly was tilted to the right of the political spectrum.

“He’s got support in the conservative Christian community--not quite on the level of Buchanan, but certainly on the level of Keyes,” said Ione Dilley, president of the Iowa Christian Coalition.


But not even Dilley, an ardent party activist, stayed for Dornan’s speech at Saturday’s rally. She thought former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was the final speaker, and left before Dornan walked to the podium.

It was symptomatic of his campaign’s deficiencies, she said. Other candidates transported supporters from out of state--one wealthy candidate, businessman Morry Taylor, had scores of women ride to the event on motorcycles. But there were no signs of Dornan’s candidacy, Dilley said, not even posters.

After Iowa, most candidates returned to the campaign trail. But not Dornan, who is in Bosnia this week doing work for the House Intelligence Committee.

Even as his campaign flounders, friend Bennett cautioned that until Dornan actually decides to abandon the presidential quest, he should not be counted out.

“There’s always going to be something that tells him, ‘Run like Don Quixote and screw it and ride it on out to the end and try to affect the outcome,’ ” Bennett said. “There’s a part of him that really enjoys the fact that he’s getting the message out.”

Times staff writer Dave Lesher contributed to this story.