HOUSTON — WHEN Dicky Flatt gets to feeling the economic blues about his small printing business, he says it's his old friend Sen. Phil Gramm who, over a cup of coffee at the local diner in Mexia, Texas, "always gives me a lift" with unswerving free-market optimism.
Hoping to graft some of that "lift" onto a campaign desperate to find ideological rapport with recession-weary Americans, George Bush has drafted the Texas Republican for tonight's prime-time GOP convention keynote speech.
In his down-home drawl, the Senator Gramm will whittle his PhD knowledge of economics into a populist vision of the American dream of private ownership, hard work, and profit that could be realized - if it weren't for the tax-and-spend Democrats foiling the president's best-laid social and economic plans.
The senator also will lavish praise on President Bush as the cold warrior who won - a victory Gramm thinks is undervalued by Americans.
Working over a typewritten sheaf of his speech in his Capitol Hill office last week, Gramm said he plans to sum up the president's strengths and weaknesses this way: "I'm going to talk about the fact that the Constitution makes the president the commander in chief of the Army but not the commander in chief of the Congress."
But viewers can also expect the Georgia-born Texas senator to tug on the heart strings with some Southern story-telling: about growing up poor with his "Mawma," about his Korean-American wife's immigrant grandfather, and about Dicky Flatt, his favorite symbol of the battered American taxpayer.
The need to cement good feelings among average American voters is as important to the GOP now as is the need to patch up relations with its conservative wing, which has lost faith in Bush for what it considers a lack of political principle, symbolized most by his broken no-new-taxes promise.
"Gramm is an aggressive point-person for the conservative wing and his role as the keynote [speaker] is twofold: to reassure conservatives George Bush deserves their support and to trash the Democrats on their tax-and-spend economics," says Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor and Houston Chronicle pollster.
Meanwhile, for Gramm's dogged loyalty to Bush - even after the president's decision to raise taxes - the GOP has handed the senator what is widely viewed as his first national exposure in his own potential bid for the presidency in 1996.
Gramm is coy about his presidential plans. But friends and enemies alike often repeat the joke about Gramm's equally large ego and ambition: that the most dangerous place to be in Washington is between a television camera and Phil Gramm.
The former Texas A&M economics professor has built his career on a single-minded devotion to fiscal conservatism more than party loyalty.
"I don't believe the things I do are because I'm a Republican. I'm a Republican because of the things I believe," he says. And the talk of GOP divisions irritates him. "I believe Republicans are still fundamentally united under the things that made us Republicans to begin."
For Gramm that means carrying the torch for a balanced budget - low taxes balanced by minimal social program spending.
Elected as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives 1978, he became a leader of the Southern "Boll Weevil" Democrats who supported President Reagan's 1981 legislation that cut taxes and social spending while spending more on defense.
Reviled by Democratic leadership, who considered him a spy for the Republicans, Gramm became a Republican in 1983. He resigned from his House seat mid-term to run for reelection as a Republican, allowing his constituents to validate the switch. They did, and in 1984 elected him to the Senate.
"What speaks a lot more to his principle than his party change was when he turned a lot of big oil guys against him when oil prices fell," says Tom Saving, a Texas A&M economics professor and longtime Gramm friend. "He's very true to his philosophy, and when they wanted oil import fees, [Gramm] said, `you don't want government interference when oil prices are high and you shouldn't want it when prices are low.' "
Mr. Saving describes Gramm as intensely competitive, setting out to excel at whatever he does - whether by hiring a Navy Seal to train him to scuba dive instead of taking a regular course, or by overcoming a poor education to reach influential heights.
Gramm, whose mother was a practical nurse and whose career Army sergeant father died when he was 14, flunked 3rd, 7th, and 9th grades before he was packed off for discipline to a military academy. Consequently Gramm was a very poor reader, Saving recalls. Also, Gramm's University of Georgia PhD was not considered rigorous enough for him to be a professor at Texas A&M.
But Gramm sat in on all the graduate economics courses, essentially redoing his PhD work to become a full professor at the early age of 33, in the process getting evangelized by free-market economics, says Saving.
After reading the "brilliant" dissertation of one applicant for a teaching position at Texas A&M, and sitting in on her job interview, Gramm resolved to marry her. Within two months of her hire, the two economists were married. Today his wife, Wendy Gramm, chairs the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.