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Dornan Still Tilting at Windmills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Elm Street, the political main street for the New Hampshire primary, a steady stream of workers exits the Patrick J. Buchanan headquarters with armloads of campaign yard signs. The well-oiled Bob Dole campaign is humming with efficiency at the nearby Holiday Inn. A flick of the television switch brings the paid advertising of the Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander campaigns.

But down the road in Nashua on a chilly afternoon, Orange County Rep. Robert K. Dornan is in his hotel parking lot, checking the battery of the old Cadillac that brought him and his wife, Sallie, from Washington, D.C.

For two nights in a row now, Dornan has had to jump-start his car. Even then, the Cadillac is in better shape than his campaign.

After a sputtering start on the bumpy freeway to the White House, the Bob Dornan for president campaign was run off the road long ago by other GOP candidates.

“He had some good ideas, but I didn’t see him as one of the serious people to consider,” said New Hampshire voter Eileen Anderson during a candidates forum Friday sponsored by the state’s Christian Coalition.

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Never taken seriously by political pundits or voters in early primary states, the fiery conservative from Garden Grove has no media gaggle recording his every word.

The bare-bones, family-managed Dornan bid raised only $279,402 last year, including $42,000 the candidate loaned to his presidential committee, and did not take in enough money in a sufficient number of states to qualify for federal matching funds. Dole, by comparison, raised $24.8 million last year.

At a time when voters are expressing disgust with career politicians, Dornan is running as a Washington insider, issuing the campaign’s most vitriolic attacks against President Clinton. It’s part of what makes his effort resemble a road show more than a serious venture for the White House, leading to a well-earned identity as the “court jester” of the 1996 GOP presidential campaign.

Curious memorabilia collectors seek his autograph. Voters who know him sit on the edge of their seats waiting for the next “Dornanism.”

Sprinkled throughout a speech at a Nashua luncheon last week were vocal imitations of Forbes and former President Bush, and details of Dornan’s hip replacement surgery. He showed a photo of his newest granddaughter to illustrate his opposition to abortion, mentioned his uncle, Jack Haley, and also the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz,” and bragged that he could have become a wealthy talk show host but chose politics instead.

“I never left my work in Congress. That’s what kept me out of here,” Dornan offered as an explanation for why he is doing poorly in the race. (He did not mention that the front-runner, Dole, also was back in Washington, leading the Senate.)

What Dornan apparently hadn’t realized on this day was that the organization that invited him--and got his New Hampshire Republican speech--drew a crowd that included many liberal Democrats.

“I thought it was a great lounge act,” said Kerrie Jones Clark of Connecticut.

Would she ever vote for him? “Never,” she responded, “but I would recommend him to Robin Williams.”

Among conservatives, Dornan is not without fans, and his Republican credentials are never doubted. A Christian Coalition rally provided more his kind of crowd. It greeted Dornan with an ovation and cheered when he noted with red-faced passion that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Dole refused to stand by the California congressman when he sponsored a resolution to stop the deployment of troops to Bosnia.

Stopping at the Merrimack Restaurant on Elm Street, just below the Buchanan headquarters, Dornan is greeted and photographed by his rival’s campaign workers. He makes his way upstairs, where the Buchanan camp cheers and applauds him as he enters.

What Dornan lacks is voters.

A University of New Hampshire survey last week of 443 likely Republican voters in Tuesday’s primary showed Dornan in last place, supported by only 1% before the Iowa caucuses. He dropped to 0% support in the two days after the Iowa voting.

The survey also reflected Dornan’s lack of campaign organization, with 28% of the Republicans stating that they had “never heard of” him. This despite his reputation among C-SPAN viewers as a passionately conservative speaker on the House floor.

As Dornan is learning, voters may like him, but they are also pragmatic.

“I like Bob very much because he’s very direct and he’s an honest candidate,” said Bob Cook, a former television engineer now living in Derry, N.H., who congratulated Dornan for saying on the House floor that Clinton gave “aid and comfort to the enemy” during the Vietnam War. But “I’m undecided at this point,” Cook said.

Carl W. Toeppel, a Wisconsin voter who said he always dreamed of being in New Hampshire during its first-in-the-nation primary, was giddy with excitement at the thought of meeting Dornan. He had already shaken hands with Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Dole and Buchanan. But Toeppel isn’t sure he will vote for Dornan back home in Wisconsin.

“I want my vote to count,” said the retired elementary school principal.

The campaign is not without its high points, however, as was evident at the Christian Coalition event.

Obviously comfortable with this crowd, Dornan revealed some of his fears about being the last-place finisher. He did poorly in last week’s Iowa caucuses, he tried to explain, because he was omitted from the coalition’s voter guide. At his urging, new fliers were printed and distributed in time for the forum in New Hampshire.

“If you want somebody with a real track record, give me a percentage [point],” Dornan pleaded, “and I can keep my pride with all these liberal sages and move on down the stream.”

Last Thursday, Dornan had his final, major opportunity to reach voters across the state during a live television debate featuring all eight recognized candidates. The New Hampshire ballot has a total 45 presidential candidates, including 22 Republicans.

Maintaining his long-standing position as the GOP “attack dog” against Clinton, Dornan nevertheless positioned himself as the peacemaker among other warring Republican candidates.

In one exchange, Dole mockingly complained of the photos of him being used in Forbes’ ads, and passed along some more attractive snapshots. Dornan took the cue and, without missing a beat, produced his own 8-by-10 glossy of himself with his newest granddaughter.

A post-debate poll of 414 New Hampshire voters sponsored by CNN and other news organizations showed that 7% believed that Dornan had won the debate. For the first time in a while, he was not in last place. He beat Illinois businessman Morry Taylor by four points.

During the debate, Dornan was on the receiving end of another candidate’s wit. Taylor was discussing Social Security when Dornan piped in: “I’m on Social Security.” Taylor quipped: “Well, you should retire, then.”

That’s exactly what some opponents in Orange County have in mind for Dornan after nine terms in Congress. His Republican primary opponents, Katherine Smith and Felix Rocha, say they respect Dornan’s right to run for the GOP presidential nomination, but they consider him an absentee congressman.

The GOP challengers are not considered formidable, and Dornan has survived claims in previous congressional races that he does not spend enough time in the district.

But he could hurt himself the longer he stays out on the darkened national stage, said Doy Henley, president of the politically influential Lincoln Club of Orange County.

“We’re trying to make changes in Congress, and I think he can do that very nicely,” Henley said. “I think it hurts him the longer he stays out there . . . instead of focusing on his congressional seat. I wish he would do that. But you know Bob.”

Deep down, Dornan knows he’s not going anywhere, especially after the last-place finish in Iowa, behind “No Preference.” But he’s having too much fun to quit.

He wants to stay in the race through the March 26 California primary, although he has his congressional reelection campaign to think about and has only $22,106 cash on hand in his campaign account for that race. Nevertheless, Dornan professes no worries--and has begun to consider another presidential bid four years from now.

“I think if [local voters] think you made a good faith effort and you were doing it for your country, then it’s like any other issue in the campaign: Is Bob Dornan for real or is he doing something bizarre?” Dornan says. “Obviously, since everybody is talking ‘faith, family, freedom,’ I am getting my message over.”

Besides, he adds, the news media would miss him if he left the national campaign.

“If it ends up a Forbes-Dole race,” Dornan says, rolling his eyes, “boy, that will be interesting.”


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