A Hoosier State conservative who favors geopolitics over pizazz. To jazz up his image, wife, Char, gave him an argyle sweater

RECLINING in his chair at Al and Randy's Barber Shop on the east side of Indianapolis, sports reporter Dick Mittman offers the score on the presidential bid of Sen. Richard Lugar.

''Dick Lugar is absolutely the best qualified man in America to be president,'' says Mr. Mittman of the popular hometown candidate. ''But he doesn't have pizazz, so he probably won't be elected,'' he says, shaking his head.

Respect for Mr. Lugar's presidential attributes - Rhodes scholar, former mayor of Indianapolis, four-term US senator, expert on foreign affairs and nuclear disarmament - extends well beyond his home turf of Indiana.

''Does he have the capacity to do the job? Yes, superbly,'' says retired Navy Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who served alongside Lugar as a young naval officer in the late 1950s.

Still, with voter support in the single digits in most polls, Lugar faces a huge challenge in convincing the millions of Americans who don't know him that credentials count more than charisma.

Not that Lugar is all dull. Once, in an emotional moment while attending a concert at Garfield Park as mayor of Indianapolis, he kissed country singer Dolly Parton at home plate. ''Perhaps not charismatic, but interesting,'' Lugar muses.

But on the whole, Lugar admits, ''I'm not really prepared to do ridiculous and bizarre things to qualify.

''In short, we're running for president,'' he said last week during an interview in his Indianapolis hotel suite. ''A president first of all has got to be someone you can trust with your life.''

Known as a pragmatic conservative who marches to his own drummer, Lugar has so far steered his campaign clear of sensationalism and mudslinging. Instead, he focuses on weighty topics such as nuclear nonproliferation, the Bosnian conflict, and the global economy.

Although such issues may not tantalize voters, Lugar says, ''they are so important for the country that I'm going to use the campaign to sound the alarm.''

With his silver hair and trademark navy blue suits, Lugar exudes the image of a cerebral elder statesman. ''He's extraordinarily bright, but without the arrogance,'' observes Admiral Inman.

Char, Lugar's wife of 40 years, calls him ''professorial.'' That seems to fit, too. Ask him a question, and the tireless reader replies with an expose. Not the stuff of sound bites, but food for thought nonetheless.

A tight budgeter by nature, Lugar still wears clothes bearing name tags sewn in by his mother. He refuses to toss old ties and navy uniforms. For the campaign, he splurged on three new suits, and Char gave him an argyle sweater ''for casual events.'' ''We've tried to jazz him up a little,'' she confides.

Most of all, people here say, Lugar stands out for his upright character.

''Lugar has honest principles. Sometimes, boring is better,'' quips Darrell Brown, a business professor at Martin University, a small, primarily black college in Indianapolis.

''He's squeaky clean,'' agrees Thornton Bardach, a businessman and neighbor of Lugar's family. ''There's no way to get to this man.''

Mr. Bardach should know. He has been acquainted with Lugar since the beginning.

''The night he was born, I took his mother to the hospital, because his Dad couldn't get the Chevrolet started. I guess it was nerves,'' Bardach recalls. ''They got me out of bed at midnight. I went out in my pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers and drove Bertha to the hospital. Then I waited for his Dad to arrive.''

That was in 1932. Richard Green Lugar was the first of three children born to farmer Marvin Lugar and Bertha Green, daughter of a local biscuit-machinery manufacturer.

The Lugars had high expectations for their children. As a youth, Lugar delivered eggs, worked on the family farm, and sold war bonds. He was also given rich opportunities. He played the cello, sang in the Methodist church choir, and joined the Boy Scouts.

Early on, say childhood friends, Lugar emerged as a leader and avid organizer. He formed stamp clubs, put out a four-page weekly newspaper using a hand-rotated printing press, and ran neighborhood track meets at croquet contests in his backyard.

''He was very competitive,'' recalls childhood buddy John Lauter, a retired insurance company employee. At high school, Lugar was the valedictorian, a talent on the championship debate team, and voted ''most likely to succeed'' by his senior class.

''Even back when we were kids, people would say, 'Dick, you should run for president,' '' says Tom Lugar, Lugar's younger brother by a year.

Lugar was enthralled by politics. He recalls staying up all night with his father in 1940, listening to a radio broadcast of the spirited nomination of Indianan Wendell Willkie at the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia.

Soon, Lugar began chalking up his own election wins. One victory, as co-president of his class at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, brought a special return. The other new co-president was a headstrong young woman named Charlene Smeltzer.

''I decided to let him know right away that I expected to be consulted,'' she recalls. ''He was very strong-minded, very well defined about what he was going to do.''

Lugar had met his match, literally. He married Miss Smeltzer three years later. Together, they raised four sons.

In 1954, Lugar graduated from Denison with a 4.0 average and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He earned a master's degree in politics, philosophy, and economics in 1956.

That spring, Lugar went to the US Embassy in London and volunteered for military service. Assigned to the Navy in 1957, he gained the coveted job of intelligence briefer to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh Burke.

Every morning, Lugar rose at 2 a.m. and memorized reams of data about ship movements and political hot spots for an 8 a.m. oral briefing for Admiral Burke and other Pentagon brass. ''It was very intense, and not very many survived,'' says Inman, recalling Burke's merciless grillings. A foreign-policy heavyweight of his era, Burke was an influential mentor for the young Lugar.

Lugar left active service in 1960 and returned home to help run the family's biscuit-machinery factory, the Thomas L. Green & Co. Lugar's father had died in 1956, and the company needed new energy, says brother Tom, now president of the firm. Lugar also wanted to secure an independent financial base before launching into politics, Char says.

In 1967, Lugar won the first of two terms as mayor of Indianapolis. In 1970, he pushed through a sweeping, innovative plan to transform the city by consolidating it with the nearby communities of Marion County under one government.

The plan, dubbed ''Unigov,'' increased the city's population by about 250,000 and its size by 275 square miles. It slowed flight to the suburbs and enabled Indianapolis to join the ranks of big cities, attract major league sports teams, and host national conventions.

Never again, locals say, would Lugar's hometown be slighted as ''India-No-Place'' or simply, ''Nap Town.'' ''He got this city turned around,'' says Mittman, the sportswriter.

Hurt by the label ''Richard Nixon's favorite mayor'' following Watergate, Lugar lost his first bid for the Senate to Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh in 1974. But two years later he prevailed, taking the Senate seat in 1977. In 1994, he became the first senator from Indiana to win a fourth consecutive term, capturing 91 of the state's 92 counties.

For most of his tenure in Washington, Lugar has served on the Senate Agriculture and Foreign Relations Committees. Conservative but not dogmatic, his voting record includes several moderate departures.

In foreign policy, for example, Lugar voted in 1988 to impose harsher economic sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime than those proposed by the Reagan administration. In 1986, he persuaded President Reagan to help ease out Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos while backing the electoral victory of Corazon Aquino.

On social issues, Lugar has voted to ban some semiautomatic assault weapons. More recently, he stalled GOP welfare reforms by refusing to back an end to the federal school-lunch program. He is also a strong advocate of affirmative action.

In the campaign, Lugar is highlighting such moderate positions in TV ads, projecting the image of a measured conservative. ''Being a conservative doesn't mean you have to lose your common sense,'' Lugar tells viewers in two recent ads.

Indeed, Lugar criticizes what he views as the unbridled conservatism driving the rest of the Republican field.

''It's almost a competition as to who can be the most mean-spirited and Draconian,'' he told about 300 people who packed an Indianapolis church last week to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. ''That is not America. That is not the American dream.''

How are voters responding?

''He seems like a pretty fair candidate. He's not afraid to address the issues,'' says Joyce Hise, a small-business owner in the audience. Ms. Hise, who is black and a registered Republican, says she would consider voting for Lugar.

Still, with a modestly financed campaign, Lugar trails other Republican contenders in polls. Front-runner Senate majority leader Bob Dole has yet to stumble. And, Lugar notes, the entry into the race of businessman Steve Forbes is buffering Dole from direct competition with veteran politicians.

''We're going to have to have some clear victories'' in coming weeks, Lugar concedes. One of Lugar's main platforms, to abolish the income tax and replace it with a 17 percent sales tax, has drawn mixed reviews. Lugar responds to critics who assert such a tax would be regressive by pledging to exempt food, clothing, and shelter.

Lugar has faced disappointments in the past. Both Nixon and George Bush considered but then bypassed Lugar as a vice presidential running mate. Lugar was openly annoyed recently when fellow Hoosier Dan Quayle snubbed him and backed Dole for president.

Should he fail to win the 1996 GOP nomination, Lugar has apparently not ruled out a future presidential bid. ''I expect he would do it again,'' says Char. ''He's only 63.''

Says Lugar, philosophically: ''Life will go on.''

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