Call him obstinate (his mother did), but this Texas senator thinks his free-market ballad is just what American voters want to hear

IN the full bloom of youth, Phil Gramm decided to take on the ancient Greeks. If they could make bronze, the incorrigible lad reasoned, so could he. Determined to coax copper into an unwilling union with tin, he ruined half his mother's pots trying to rig a makeshift smelter in the backyard.

Young William Philip never quite got the fire hot enough for the alloy. But he kindled Florence Gramm's temper to a red-hot glow.

''One of the worst beatings of my life came over metallurgy,'' recalls Mr. Gramm, now a senator from Texas seeking the Republican nomination for president. ''My mama caught me in the act of coming back into the house to get another pot. She whacked me upside the head with it.''

Life's lessons always came skillet-hard for Gramm. He was undisciplined and prankish - and obstinate. Failure and long-odds didn't deter him. In time, he learned to put that tenacity to constructive use, and this helps explain how he persists undaunted in his quest for the White House. No matter that he's stuck in the pack. Gramm is convinced his free-market prescription is good for America.

The senator knew six years ago, when George Bush broke his pledge not to raise taxes, that this would be his year to run. Standing last February in the Georgia sunshine on the steps of Wynnton Elementary School - his school - Gramm was the first to enter the race officially.

Before he declared, he spread the word around Texas and transferred almost $5 million from his Senate war chest to intimidate the competition. He quickly set out on a path to raise $20 million, a fact that made him a major contender at the start. But unlike another well-heeled competitor, Steve Forbes, Gramm has been unable to break out of the pack.

''I'm not in this for practice,'' he says as his campaign bus rolls through the Iowa night. ''I'm in this to win.''

Gramm's friends say his drive springs from his humble beginnings. No one was going to be smarter or better than the poor kid from Columbus, Ga., not in the classroom or the US Senate or on the campaign trail. He made up his mind about that a long time ago.

Critics slam the senator's no-holds-barred ambition and accuse him of being unscrupulous in achieving his ends.

''A lot of voters respect him for his position on issues, but don't like him much,'' says Richard Murry, a political scientist at the University of Houston who has followed Gramm's career. ''That resentment is based on a sense that he's so consumed by his own ambition. He's for Phil first ... a great credit-taker.''

Humble beginnings

There was no Ozzie and Harriet family for Phil Gramm. During Gramm's youth, Florence worked as a nurse, supporting Phil, his two half-brothers, and his father, Kenneth, an invalid former Army sergeant. One of Phil's most powerful childhood memories was watching his mama and brother Don spread the bills out on the kitchen table and decide which ones not to pay that month.

''The old formica kitchen table,'' he says in a stump speech. ''I've never forgotten that's where the American Dream is lost or won.''

Poverty bothered the boy, but it didn't motivate him in the classroom. He flunked the third grade and had to take summer make-up classes to pass the seventh and ninth grades. He recalls the time his freshman math teacher called home: ''Florence,'' she said, ''we can't all be engineers. That boy doesn't have the ability to graduate from high school.''

Mrs. Gramm, who never finished the eighth grade herself, didn't disagree. ''What's ability got to do with it?'' she simply asked. ''He going to college or I'm going to kill him.''

What Phil may have lacked wasn't ability, but a challenge. He got that in 1957, the year his father died and Florence packed Phil off to the Georgia Military Academy outside Atlanta, hoping cadet life would instill discipline.

By the time he graduated, Gramm was a different person. He went on to earn a PhD in economics from the University of Georgia. Before long, Texas A&M recruited him to develop their doctorate program in economics.

It was 1967 when Gramm arrived in College Station, Texas. The country was at war with Vietnam and an economist name Milton Friedman was challenging the prevailing liberal economic models of government. A&M was a conservative place, and Gramm fit right in.

With teaching deferments to ward off the draft, Gramm settled into a comfortable rhythm of sandals, barbecues, and Goldwater conservatism. Not that he disagreed with the war, just the draft. He adopted Mr. Friedman's view that the draft was an unfair tax imposed in the form of low military wages.

Gramm spent 11 years at College Station, refining a free-enterprise doctrine that formed the core of his beliefs. The environment was rigorous. A year after he arrived, a department shakeup opened the door to new recruits from Harvard and MIT. But no blue-blazer Ivy Leaguer was going to outsmart Gramm.

''We had our backs up against the wall,'' recalls Robert Ekelund, a colleague. ''We were determined not to get pushed out. We published a lot.'' They wrote newspaper articles, teamed up on a book, and made tenure in six years.

''I set out to become a full professor by the time I was 30 - and I made it,'' Gramm says.

Time for the next calling: politics.

Boll Weevilin'

He was a conservative: free-market to the bone and tough on social issues. But Gramm ran as a Democrat. His timing wasn't great. A virtual unknown, he challenged popular incumbent Lloyd Bentsen in the 1976 Senate race and lost.

The odds hadn't deterred him. Gramm was ready even if voters weren't. Inflation and the energy crisis were hobbling the country, and he felt he had a solution. He lost that first race, but the exposure helped him sail into the House of Representatives in '78.

Gramm grabbed the spotlight quickly. In 1981, from his seat on the House Budget Committee, he led the fight for President Reagan's tax cuts. The congressman brought a coalition of conservative Democrats - the Boll Weevils - along. But the Democratic leadership took away his committee seat when they found out he was leaking their strategy secrets to the White House.

Gramm got the last word. He resigned and ran again in a special election - as a Republican. ''I had to choose between [Democratic House Speaker] Tip O'Neill and y'all,'' he told voters, ''and I decided to stand with y'all.'' By 1984, he was on his way to the Senate.

During his tenure in the Senate, Gramm has been a deficit hawk. With Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hamsphire, he wrote a bill in 1984 that put the federal government on an automatic path toward a balanced budget through enforced spending limits. For all its merits, however, Gramm-Rudman didn't end deficit spending. It left exempt those programs most responsible for the annual rise in red ink.

The law died in 1990, when President Bush, fearing recession, abandoned his campaign promise of ''no new taxes.'' A member of the Senate team working on that year's budget deal, Gramm helped broker a plan that would have raised taxes by $100 billion. The bill stumbled in the House, and Gramm voted against a revision that would have raised taxes even more.

That's when he decided it was time to mount his own presidential bid. As chairman of the Senate campaign committee, Gramm traveled the country during the 1994 elections bashing Clinton's 1993 economic stimulus plan and health care reform proposal.

Envision a kitchen table

Nobody campaigns like Phil Gramm. He works nine or 10 stops in a day, delivering the same speech with equal vigor. He fights off afternoon stubble with a pocket razor.

Gramm knows what buttons to push. He's folksy and self-deprecating. Every crowd hears how his wife turned him down the first two times he proposed. On the third try, he dropped to one knee, in public, and wouldn't get up until she gave in.

Gramm's vision starts with the kitchen table. The less government taxes, spends, and regulates, the more families and small businesses will have in their fight for the American Dream. It's a folk ballad of free enterprise.

Between bites of thin-crust pizza aboard the bus, his voice rough from many speeches, he paints a picture of America after eight years of President Gramm: 4 percent interest rates on mortgages, 3.5 percent prime lending rate, 18 million new jobs, smaller federal government. States would control welfare, crime would be down, property owners wouldn't get pushed around by wetlands protectors.

Gramm pledges to balance the budget in his first term - or not seek reelection. It's a bold proposal, especially since he counted on Congress making a two-year dent in the deficit before he took office. That seems increasingly unlikely. He also proposes a flat tax at 16 percent, with mortgage and charitable deductions.

On social issues, he speaks with the dry abstraction of an economist. ''Welfare has kept the market system from working'' by allowing people to remain in places where there are no jobs, he says. Take away the public check, and the poor will have to do what others do: move.

''The firmness of his beliefs leads him to sound doctrinaire and ruthless,'' Mr. Ekelund says of his friend. ''But his life was hard-scrabble. He made it the hard way, and resents people that don't stand on their own two feet.''

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