Can Lugar Campaign Get Off the Ground?

TWENTY-FIVE years ago I was moving from state to state on an assignment which called for interviewing a number of governors. But when I came to Indianapolis I was persuaded by some friends to try to line up a get-together with the city's young new mayor.

I did. And after a pleasant Saturday afternoon spent at the mayor's home, I returned to my friends and thanked them. I said not only was I impressed but also thought that the fellow just might become president someday. He seemed to have the potential. That mayor, who soon became known nationally for doing so much to revitalize Indianapolis, was Richard Lugar.

Senator Lugar, of course, now is running for president. And he came in to a Monitor breakfast the other morning to make what he called -- with a smile -- one of several ''announcements'' of his decision to get into the race.

''Is this a conditional candidacy?'' I asked, ''one based on whether or not you can raise the necessary money?''

''No,'' he said, ''I can raise the money. I'm in this to stay.''

Lugar's credentials are impressive: senator, farm manager, educator, mayor, entrepreneur, school board member, naval officer, Rhodes Scholar, valedictorian (both high school and college), Eagle Scout, and more. No senator is more highly regarded by his peers or by the media. You'll hear no question from any quarter about this man's ability to be president. But as I talked to reporters after the breakfast I again and again heard a comment along this line: ''He's quite a fellow, but he's too lackluster to get elected.''

I had tried this question on Lugar at the beginning of our morning session. ''You've got all these credentials; yet it's being said that you lack the charisma, the razzle-dazzle, to win over the voters. What do you say to that?''

This mild-mannered, always gracious man shrugged his shoulders and said: ''Well, I've got to be me.''

After gaining two terms as mayor, Lugar has become the only popularly elected four-term senator in Indiana history. He also shattered all statewide election records by winning more than twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent in 1994.

But the question now is whether the voters all around the country can over the next few months get to know a man whose recognition factor is so very low at this time and who, as one of his friends puts it, ''needs to grow on you.''

Lugar tells us he can overcome this problem with diligent campaigning. We shall see.

It must be said that Lugar's leading opponents -- Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and Lamar Alexander -- aren't blessed with an overabundance of charisma. But all three are able to project their personalities in ways that make them attractive -- or unattractive -- to a large number of voters. None has the charismatic appeal of a Kennedy, a Humphrey, an Eisenhower, or a Reagan. But compared with the serious-minded Lugar they all look like dazzlers.

Mr. Lugar's best chance of catching up in this campaign is to engage in a series of debates with the contenders for the nomination. Lugar is so knowledgable in both foreign and domestic affairs that in that kind of a confrontation his subdued personality soon is forgotten.

Some reporters at the Lugar breakfast were also lamenting a process where a candidate for president without charisma is so handicapped. ''It's a sad commentary on how we elect our presidents,'' one journalist said as others nodded in agreement.

''Look what Lugar would be facing if he should win the nomination,'' one reporter said. ''He'd be up against the king of charisma, Bill Clinton.''

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