WASHINGTON — The year was 1964, and Gary Bauer had just finished high school in Newport, Ky. Ronald Reagan was speaking on television, and the young Mr. Bauer turned to his father and said, "That guy's gonna be president someday, and I'm gonna work for him in the White House."
"My father said, 'You're nuts,' " Bauer recalls. "But he was able to visit me in my West Wing office a few years before he passed away."
Gary Bauer, former chief of domestic policy for President Reagan and head of his own conservative activist empire, has always known exactly what he wants.
Now, after 10 years leading the Family Research Council - an increasingly influential think tank and lobbying group - Bauer can finally stake a claim on a long-held goal: to be the top spokesman for religious conservatives.
He has lobbied successfully to keep the anti-abortion plank in the GOP platform. He made a high-profile alliance with Democrats - and went toe-to-toe against Henry Kissinger to fight for human rights in China.
He's formed a new political-action committee, which is already spending six-figure sums in congressional races, much to the dismay of moderate Republicans.
It also hasn't hurt Bauer that his sometime rival, the media-savvy Ralph Reed, has left the leadership of the Christian Coalition, and that Mr. Reed's successors have yet to emerge as national figures. "Gary Bauer's star is very much on the rise," says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Bauer opponent who gives the man credit for doing his homework and sticking to his principles.
Bauer doesn't always get what he wants. Last week, his favored candidate lost a hotly contested congressional race in California. But even in defeat, Bauer wins. He and his anti-abortion agenda get attention, and establishment Republicans scurry to make sure Bauer doesn't strike again by defeating more moderate party members in coming primary races.
Oval Office ambition
Now the diminutive conservative is talking about running for president - not so much because he thinks he can win, but to sound a clear call for the issues he says the Republican Party should be focusing on. If Mr. Reed's aim as executive director of the Christian Coalition was to have a seat at the table in GOP politics, then Bauer's is to change those politics altogether.
"I don't believe our campaigns in the last two cycles have been very useful in helping us deal with what I call the virtue deficit and the breakdown of family life and what's happening to America's kids and the relationship of liberty to virtue," says Bauer in an interview at his new six-story headquarters in downtown Washington, his office lined with pictures of his wife and three kids.
"So I'm committed to doing everything I can to elevate those issues, even if in the process I may make some of my longtime Republican friends and allies a little uncomfortable."
"A little uncomfortable" is probably an understatement. When Bauer's political-action committee, the Campaign for Working Families, helped a hard-line social conservative beat the mainstream party choice in the January primary for a special congressional election in California, GOP regulars worried he was effectively throwing the race to the Democrat.
And when Democrat Lois Capps did win the runoff, some political observers suggested that's exactly what Bauer and other conservative activists ended up doing. The district, centered in Santa Barbara, was marginally Republican, and the man who lost in the primary - Brooks Firestone - could well have beaten Mrs. Capps in a head-to-head match, local analysts say.
If Bauer-backed conservatives win in the Illinois primary races held March 17, pro-abortion-rights GOP activists predict the Republican old guard will spring into action to try to prevent the pattern from repeating throughout the primaries. "He's ruining the Republican Party," complains Lynn Grefe, head of the Republican Pro-Choice PAC.
Bauer maintains the social-conservative agenda is the winning agenda, and that the Republican Party just needs to find its voice on these issues. Exhibit A is his old boss, Ronald Reagan, who he says won election twice on these issues, while President Bush and Bob Dole soft-pedaled social issues and lost.
"A trend has developed in recent years where good Republican senators and governors and congressmen will come to an event out at Focus on the Family or at the Family Research Council or at the Christian Coalition, and they'll give great speeches on values and the sanctity of human life," Bauer says. "But then you see them on 'Meet the Press' or at the Detroit Economic Club, and these things are all forgotten."
So far, Bauer's not impressed by any of the Republicans laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign - not even Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who has won early support from Christian Coalition state chairs. By the end of the year, Bauer will decide whether to jump in.
His would be an unorthodox candidacy, not so much because he's never held elective office, but because some of his proposals buck standard GOP views. Bauer opposes privatization of Social Security, arguing that it would be difficult for low-income families, in particular, to know what to do in the stock market.
He proposes instead an immediate 20 percent reduction in the payroll tax, and the option to use that money however one sees fit, including possible investment in stocks. Upon retirement, a person's Social Security benefits would be lowered by 20 percent.
Bauer, too, wants to put more pressure on the Chinese government over human rights than either major party is prepared to do. The prevalent GOP thinking on China is "scandalous," he says. "I believe in free trade, by and large, but not at the expense of doing business with people who are engaged in slave labor and persecuting Christians."
The No. 1 issue of a Bauer candidacy, of course, would be abortion, "the premier moral issue of our time."
"What more important issue does the Congress of the United States have than the issue of whether or not the Constitution and Declaration of Independence apply to our unborn children?" he asks. "That is more important than the funding level of the NEA or whether Medicare ought to be $200 billion or $208 billion or any number of other things they spend hours a day debating."
Bauer's family, so far, seems game for a possible presidential run. His wife, he says, is "excited that people would even talk about this." Eleven-year-old son Zachary's only worry was whether he'd be able to put a basketball hoop in the driveway at the White House.
In a way, Bauer has much in common with President Clinton. Both grew up in Southern working-class families, in towns where gambling and prostitution were apparently rampant. Both had alcoholic fathers; both have degrees from Georgetown University. But as political players, the two could hardly be more different. If Mr. Clinton is the consummate insider, ready to compromise to cut a deal, Bauer is the ultimate outsider, lobbing bombs into the tent rather than being inside it.
Compromise, says Bauer, is not the goal of a great movement.
"Nobody's going to put on your tombstone, 'He had a place at the table.' The thing you want on your tombstone is, 'He liberated the slaves' or 'He stopped the slaughter of the innocents.' That's what men and women of faith in both parties ought to be involved in."