COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS — SEN. Phil Gramm used two cannons to punctuate the end of his formal announcement for president last week at Texas A&M University. The blasts were a bit of Lone Star bravado -- and a signal that with opening primaries still a year away, GOP presidential candidates are already wheeling out their big guns.
For Texas Senator Gramm, the biggest artillery tube may be money. His early fund-raising has surpassed that of all rivals, both declared and probable. With ready cash, a honed conservative message, and obvious ambition to win, Mr. Gramm has clearly positioned himself as the early chief opponent of the putative front-runner, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.
But his unabashed boasting about his fund-raising prowess may play poorly in frugal New Hampshire, legendary early testing ground of presidential dreams. Moreover, his message, centered on balancing the budget, cracking down on crime, and revamping welfare, is delivered without the optimistic mien of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
Not that Mr. Dole, a consummate legislator, is himself often described as ''sunny.'' Both Dole and Gramm are ''fairly direct. You could almost use the word caustic,'' says GOP consultant Eddy Mahe.
Senator Dole, who leads other potential contenders in name recognition, in recent polls, and in organizing in key states, plans to announce on April 10. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander plans to officially launch his candidacy tomorrow, counting on his organization in Iowa and New Hampshire as a means to counter the advantages of the front-runners.
It is Gramm, however, that has grabbed the current headlines as he sprints out of the box. If nothing else, he is already famous for the largest single campaign fund-raiser on record, an event in Dallas last week that deposited $4.1 million in his already bulging campaign warchest.
To his partisans, the Texas senator has been a reliable and effective conservative. ''He's been in the trenches. He knows what it takes to get the job done,'' says Christina Melton, who chairs the 2,000-member Texas Young Republican Federation and who sat at one of the $1,000-a-plate tables at the Dallas fund-raiser.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote, Gramm is not as well organized as Alexander, a former secretary of education. The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are regarded as sink-or-swim contests.
But Alexander's fundraising lags behind Gramm's ''awesome numbers,'' says Ed Goeas, president of the Republican polling firm Torrance & Associates. ''That defines [Gramm] as a front-runner even if he's behind in the polls.''
The Dole campaign says that its fundraising is surpassing the $50,000-a-day level that a presidential run is considered to require. When the Federal Election Commission releases fund-raising data next month, Dole will still lag behind Gramm but soon will catch up, a campaign spokesman predicts.
Meanwhile, Dole is far ahead in Iowa polls. ''The battle in Iowa is for second place,'' says Steve Roberts, the state Republican National Committeeman.
Mr. Roberts, who helped longtime friend Dole win Iowa in 1988, is backing the Kansas senator again.
But Roberts likes Gramm and says the Texan would carry the state if Dole weren't in the race. He adds that in 1988, when Dole won Iowa but still lost the nomination to Bush, shows that doing better than expected rather than winning is what matters. Dole's task is to lower expectations, Mr. Goeas agrees.
If the field is crowded, voters will tend to focus on the two top contenders, Goeas says. Four prominent Republicans tested the waters and backed off, but at least seven others may take the plunge. Goeas, who worked for Gramm's two Senate contests, had intended to assist a Jack Kemp candidacy until Mr. Kemp balked.
Alexander, who positions himself as a Washington outsider, has not yet realized that his anti-Congress message died last election day, when Republicans captured both houses, Goeas says. If Americans don't like how the GOP is running things, they'll vote Democrat.
Gramm's message, delivered in a five-state swing beginning Friday, is that Republicans are ''one victory away from reversing the course of American history and that one victory is defeating Bill Clinton in 1996.''
He says that an American family with two children in 1950 sent $1 of every $50 it earned to Washington. Today it's 1 in 4, Gramm says.
He adds that a 21-year-old male today is likelier to be murdered than a World War II serviceman was to be killed in combat. Gramm earned his biggest cheer at his Texas A&M campaign kickoff by advocating capital punishment. In big cities today, half of births are out of wedlock, he notes. However, Gramm was silent on the issue of abortion, which he opposes.
In an allusion to President Bush's broken ''no new taxes'' pledge, Gramm says, ''I'm not asking for blind faith. Read my record.'' It is interesting reading indeed, revealing a man whose public stances are not always consistent with one another or with his personal circumstances.
For instance, Gramm is critical of government spending generally and welfare in particular, even though he has drawn a government paycheck almost his whole working life and even though federal dollars (albeit not welfare) helped his family throughout his pinched-penny youth.
Gramm has lambasted Democratic candidates for not serving in the military, even though he avoided the Vietnam-era draft through repeated academic deferments. As president, Gramm says he would end military cutbacks and defend national interests in situations where the military can be decisive. He would not let the United States be the world's policeman, nor would he ever put US troops under the command of the United Nations, he says.