WASHINGTON — As a boy, Orrin Hatch grew up in such poverty that one wall of his house was a Meadow Gold Dairy sign. As a young Utah lawyer he decided to challenge an incumbent senator on the last day he could enter the race - and won. As chairman of an important committee on Capitol Hill, he has reached out to Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, among others, to help pass major bills dealing with children, health care, and job training.
As a presidential candidate ... well, let's just say his poll numbers are single-digit. As in "1."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah believed that his background and years of experience would make him a serious contender for this year's Republican presidential nomination. Instead, his debate repartee (Hatch to Forbes: "Steve, I couldn't lift your wallet") has made him something akin to the contest's emcee.
He's not the first national legislator to discover that respect inside a congressional conference committee does not always translate to votes in the Iowa caucuses. His fate may hold a lesson for future candidates: Americans don't elect a national leader just to run the government. They want something more.
"He's running for prime minister of a parliamentary system," says Dennis Goldfield, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "The problem is that in America we have a president."
Senator Hatch got 550 votes, of 24,000 cast, in last August's Iowa straw poll. He continues to run near the bottom in most national surveys. He seems certain to join the list of well-respected senators who didn't make it on the national stage, which includes Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana (flopped in 1996), Howard Baker of Tennessee (ditto, 1980), and Democrat Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington (ate Jimmy Carter's dust, 1976).
But at least he's got a sense of humor about it. Impending defeat has freed Hatch to say pretty much whatever he wants.
He's called Steve Forbes "the human metronome," and said that Bill Bradley proves sleep can be induced without medication.
He's complained about how hard it is to squeeze campaign cash out of strait-laced Utah ("You think it's easy raising money from people who are all sober?).
He's grumbled that George W. Bush and John McCain monopolize media attention, while "Gary Bauer and I have to stand outside the 'Today' show with a sign that says 'Hi, Katie!' "
Informal on the stump
This informality has come as something of a surprise in Washington, where the conservative Hatch is better known for his primness and elegant clothes. But it turns out that even Hatch's suits aren't what they seem. None costs more than $200.
"I've been known to pay $90 for a suit," he says by phone as he jounces to yet another Iowa campaign event. "A lot of them are Sansabelts. I still have 10 shirts I bought in Taiwan 10 years ago."
Then again, Hatch has been unpredictable for much of his public career. Last year, before the Senate vote on the impeachment of President Clinton, Hatch suggested that censure might be a preferable alternative. Then he voted for the president's ouster - and in his campaign he claims the Clinton administration's misdeeds are "worse than Watergate."
He's a conservative partisan who fought hard for Clarence Thomas's nomination to the US Supreme Court in the face of sexual-harassment allegations by former subordinate Anita Hill. Then he's turned around and worked with that archliberal, Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, on measures to expand federal health-care programs and increase tobacco taxes.
He even wrote a song for the wedding of Kennedy and his current wife.
Former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona remembers that his friend Orrin Hatch would come to him ask him to get Kennedy's vote on certain issues. "I'd say, 'you know him better than I do.' He'd say, 'yeah, don't tell anybody that.' "
Hatch's political career is even something of an accident - or the dream of an optimist. Raised the son of an underemployed craftsman in Pittsburgh, he worked his way through law school and then moved to Utah, where he built a lucrative practice by being gifted at swaying juries. His partner urged him to run for office, and on the last day possible he filed to run against a prohibitive favorite, a three-term Democratic incumbent, in 1976.
He won. In 23 years in the Senate he has risen to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee and transformed himself into someone who gets things done. "He realized that government didn't have to be torn down and rebuilt from the bottom up," says Mr. DeConcini.
Now he's facing even longer odds than he did in 1976. But like all candidates, he has a victory scenario. It goes like this: Polls show that some 70 percent of voters haven't really given the campaign much thought. Everyone's support is soft. If front-runner George W. Bush stumbles, why not Hatch?
"The media have basically said there are only two people in this race. Orrin Hatch has more experience than either of them," says the candidate.
Hatch hits his record hard on the stump. He says he's passed bills, met foreign leaders, and dealt with taxes and budgets for decades longer than the other guys. He talks about his past service on the Finance Committee, his ability to work with Congress, his interest in high-tech issues. He's issued plans for his first day in office. His opponents? They'd need a week to figure out the way to Capitol Hill. "I have a record of accomplishment none of them can match," he says.
All of that may be true, but is apparently irrelevant to voters. As the GOP's Bob Dole learned in 1996, experience doesn't always sell. Vision does. Charisma does. The ability to symbolize the nation and bring it together in times of sorrow does.
"Hatch has been a solid presence, but the dynamics of the race are against him," says Richard Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who is now a consultant in Washington. "He started late. He's had trouble raising money."
Jabs at Clinton
Unlike the other GOP candidates, Hatch has also spent a considerable amount of time bashing the Clintons. "They said they'd be the most ethical administration in history. Does anybody believe that?" he says.
He questions the legality of Clinton fund-raising methods, brings in Chinese money, and then segues seamlessly into a discussion of his experience in counter-terrorism, which, he says, would be useful in preventing the leakage of secrets to the Chinese.
He points out that he's been married to the same women for 43 years and has six children and 19 grandchildren.
"We need a president who is going to return integrity, decency, candor, modesty, and moral concern to the White House," he says.
Anti-Mormon prejudice might be hurting him, he feels. Well, he can always pursue that songwriting career.
He's got seven CDs out now, and a song he co-wrote just hit No. 9 on the inspirational music charts. Gladys Knight, late of Gladys Knight and the Pips, has recorded two of his numbers.
"She made me an honorary Pip," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society