Ten small American flags hang above the mantle in John Ashcroft's Senate office. Each one is framed, with a young pupil's black-and-white photo superimposed on the field of 48 stars. In the white stripes, childish handwriting spells out homey definitions of virtues such as reliability, honesty, and self-control.
The senator is obviously proud of his flag collection. He shows it off to visitors and has had the series reproduced as a collection of oversized postcards that he distributes from his office. Many Washington sophisticates would regard the penmanship lessons, distributed in the 1930s by the National Institution for Moral Instruction, as hopelessly hokey and old-fashioned. Not Sen. Ashcroft. He considers them "a reminder of the values that have been the foundation and strength of our nation."
Washington sophisticates would regard that assessment as even hokier than the flags themselves, but Sen. Ashcroft doesn't much mind. One of his favorite flags, after all, offers a practical definition of "self-reliance": "I will learn to think for myself. I will not be afraid of being laughed at."
The junior senator from Missouri has been doing a lot of thinking for himself lately. Mostly, he's been thinking about the White House-specifically, the fact that he'd like to move in. Though the very idea would elicit laughter from many political analysts, the self-reliant senator keeps thinking about it.
But Mr. Ashcroft is no Don Quixote. He realizes that even a billionaire businessman like Ross Perot isn't self-reliant enough to get into the White House without a lot of help, both political and financial. So, just a few months after the last election-when most voters were reveling in a reprieve from yard signs and bumper stickers-John Ashcroft started talking to his friends, feeling them out on a presidential bid, gauging their enthusiasm.
The circle of friends that he turned to for advice reveals a lot about the little-known senator. His fan club is said to include such religious-right icons as Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Mike Farris. Columnist George Will dubbed him the "pinup candidate" of the Christian Coalition, a group that anointed him with the coveted keynote speech at its national convention last month.
Not bad for a politician who barely registers on the wider political consciousness. The problem, of course, is that an anointing by a handful of Christian leaders doesn't carry the same weight as an anointing by, say, Samuel. His anointee may have seemed an unlikely national leader, but King David had the advantage of not having to face a democratic election. Sen. Ashcroft, by contrast, has to sell himself to several million voters who tend to "look on the outward appearance" rather than the content of a candidate's character, as evidenced by the double election of Bill Clinton.
But Mr. Ashcroft plainly is betting that by the end of the "Slick Willie" era, voters will be ready for a candidate whose life is an open book and whose views don't shift with the political winds. He's already trying to define himself as a kind of anti-Clinton, excoriating the president for his alleged marital unfaithfulness and for admitting that he would inhale if he had it all to do over again. "That is not the kind of leadership most parents want their children to see," he says, exhibiting a restraint that will no doubt weaken as the election nears.
By contrast, Mr. Ashcroft insists that he has no skeletons in his closet, and that he could withstand intense media scrutiny "on these and other issues." His friends agree.
Carl Herbster, a Baptist pastor and president of the Kansas City-based American Association of Christian Schools, got to know Mr. Ashcroft during his two terms as governor of Missouri. He says he was skeptical at first, having been burned by politicians who offered lip service to Christian values, then betrayed those values once in office. Even after sitting in on one of the 7:45 a.m. Bible studies that supposedly started each day in the governor's office, Mr. Herbster wasn't convinced. "There was many a time when I just dropped in on him to see if this was for real, or whether he was just staging it for my benefit," Mr. Herbster recalls. Throughout eight years of visits, he never caught the governor going to work without first going to prayer.
"I look at him as a man of character who has a consistent walk with God," Mr. Herbster says of the senator, whom he describes as a non-charismatic Pentecostal. So when Mr. Ashcroft called him early in the summer to ask what he thought of a presidential bid, "I responded very positively. I took him to Esther and said 'for such a time as this' we need John Ashcroft."
Mike Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, agrees that the time may be right for an Ashcroft bid. "If he decides to run for president, I think social conservatives will be wildly enthusiastic. It reminds me of my run for lieutentant governor [of Virginia in 1993]. What made people excited when I ran was that it wasn't just another politician saying, 'I understand social conservatives.' I was one. It's the same with Ashcroft. He's a solid believer and a solid conservative. For a change we have a potential candidate who's politically viable who also happens to be one of us."
By lining up such impressive support early in the game, Mr. Ashcroft may be hoping to ward off conservative challengers like Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, and Alan Keyes. If he becomes known as the favored candidate of religious right leaders, others who rely on the same voting bloc might be forced to back down.
There is some precedent for such a scenario. Bob Dole started running for president almost before the ballots had been counted in 1992. By the time the primaries rolled around four years later, he had locked up the support of virtually the entire Republican establishment, leaving little room-or money-for a serious challenger. But somehow, the leadership's enthusiasm failed to trickle down to the troops, whose support for their nominee was more insipid than inspired.
Clearly, John Ashcroft has no intention of becoming the Bob Dole of the religious right. But does he have what it takes to spark a fire in the heart of rank-and-file conservatives and get them excited about his campaign? At first glance, the answer would seem to be no.
"One thing that's going against him is that he's a senator," says Richard Viguerie, a well-known Republican political strategist. "A lot of conservatives are anxious to look outside of Washington." What they're looking for, he says, is a candidate who's "really one of us at heart." That may be hard for the senator to accomplish, Mr. Viguerie says, because "conservatives are disillusioned-jaundiced, almost."
Another factor working against Sen. Ashcroft is name recognition. "We haven't seen a lot from him since he's been here in Washington, and we didn't see a whole lot from him when he was governor. He's minded the store and voted reliably, but he's not such a familiar face with conservatives as Reagan or Kemp or others in the past."
The comparison to those charismatic leaders who generated widespread loyalty among the grassroots is not coincidental. As he strives to increase his name recognition outside of leadership circles, Sen. Ashcroft may be hampered by the fact that he's not the prototypical media candidate of the '90s: He's not tall and striking, he never was a football star, and it's impossible to imagine him with a $200 haircut by Christophe. His facial features are as broad and flat as his pronunciation (his home state comes out of his mouth as Mi-zurr-uh), and his speech is so deliberate that a good typist can transcribe an interview in real time, without rewinding the tape.
But beneath the laid-back exterior lurks an unquenchable ambition for the most powerful office in the world. Mr. Ashcroft knows that such an ambition is a bit unseemly for a Christian. "It is more than a bit arrogant for anyone to believe he can be president," he admitted to the Christian Coalition delegates in Atlanta, then added: "And so, I would ask that you pray for Janet and me to carry Christ's spirit of humility in the months ahead."
And behind his rather sleepy eyelids lies a vision for America that he believes will appeal to conservative voters of all stripes, both economic and cultural. Mr. Ashcroft tried to share that vision with WORLD during a lengthy interview in his Washington office.
He compares the current political atmosphere to a demolition derby, where good ideas collide with expediency and special interests. "It's as if you wait until all the ideas are dead, after they've all backed into each other, and then you start picking parts off the cars, trying to build one that will run. You may have Chevy fenders and Oldsmobile bumpers. The point is that sometimes in that process, the noble ideas don't ever get discussed. We just focus on the doable ideas-the ones you can drive away when you're finished."
The presidency, he believes, is about more than proposing budgets and administering a sprawling bureaucracy; it's about leadership and vision and inspiration. "You have a chance to talk about the ideal and not just the deal," he says.
The ideal, for Sen. Ashcroft, is leadership that "calls America to her highest and best, rather than accommodating her at her lowest and least." It's a phrase with a vaguely Reaganesque ring to it, and it's become a virtual mantra for Mr. Ashcroft. He believes it's an ideal that springs from his faith.
"When you consider the person and spirit of Christ, he was interested in finding ways for people to reach their potential, to work at their highest and best. He didn't accommodate people at their lowest and least. That's been a major fault of our government. When it says to youngsters on their way out of class, 'Here's a condom; I know what you're going to be doing, so I'll accomodate you in that.' Or they say to a person on dope, 'Here's a clean needle and a treatment program, so in case you have a bad trip, we'll be there for you.' That's not real love. Real love respects the person so profoundly, it says, 'Don't be involved in lifestyles that are unhealthy and will probably involve you in parenthood at a time when it's not in your best interests.' Real love says to a person, 'We're not going to provide a clean needle because we don't know of a way in which helping you have a drug-addicted life is in your best interest.'"
That's the kind of talk social conservatives want to hear, but the senator realizes he's not the only Republican saying such things. If others can say the same things more passionately and more eloquently than Mr. Ashcroft (whose long, rambling sentences sometimes sound distressingly like those of George Bush), how does he ever expect to get the nomination?
The key, he believes, is that his vision doesn't stop with issues such as abortion and drugs. When discussing those issues, he moves, seamlessly and inevitably, to matters of economics-a subject about which he claims considerably greater expertise than other social conservatives. His plan for cutting through Republican primary clutter is not to rant the loudest but to reach the longest.
"I think the real key to Republican wins is when we can combine the flows and develop a confluence of the two rivers in the Republican Party-the economic conservatives and the social conservatives." Though he insists that he's "delighted to have the support of socially conservative individuals," he also wants everyone to understand that "we have not ever been absent the credentials of the economic conservative aspects of the Republican Party."
Mr. Ashcroft is proud of the fact that during his years as governor, Missouri enjoyed the 49th lowest tax burden in the nation while maintaining service levels and creating a rainy-day fund. The financial professionals took note, and Missouri became one of only a handful of states to earn triple-A bond ratings from all three rating agencies.
Will that be enough to beat back the challenge of well-known economic specialists such as Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp? Social conservatives have shown time and again that they are willing to accept lip service from economic conservatives, but the goodwill rarely flows in the other direction. Country club Republicans, it seems, harbor deep reservations about social conservatives-reservations that even a solid economic record can only rarely overcome.
But Mr. Ashcroft has one more ace to play: In addition to a solid (if unspectacular) record on both social and economic issues, he also has a touch of the populist about him. For example, when he attacks the National Endowment for the Arts-a favorite target of the religious right-he does so more in terms of common sense than common decency.
"I tend not to be an individual who has invested a great deal of my life in opera," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, noting that his musical tastes run to gospel and country. "Now the opera gets a subsidy from the National Endowment for the Arts, but, by and large, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks don't. Those of us who drive our pickups to those concerts don't get a subsidy, but the people who drive their Mercedes to the opera get a subsidy."
Even the cornerstone of his economic platform smacks of populism. Mr. Ashcroft proposes a tax deduction for social security payroll taxes, a plan he estimates would save the typical family $1,200 a year. Almost any voter with a regular paycheck would appreciate such a move, but it has special appeal to working-class families who are left cold by more typical Republican proposals to reduce capital gains and inheritance taxes.
A born-again Christian who also happens to be a Reaganite optimist, common-sense populist, and tight-fisted economist: That is the image John Ashcroft wants to portray in his quest for the presidency. It looks great on paper, and so far Christian leaders seem to be buying it. But what of the followers? Can a plain-spoken, unprepossessing senator from Missouri fire them with the kind of passion that Ronald Reagan did? Other candidates have looked at least as good on paper, but turned into paper tigers on the campaign trail.
Mr. Ashcroft has shown a knack for making friends in high places. Now he'll have to prove he can do the same on the other end of the scale. Garth Brooks, his musical icon, could tell him all about that.
So could Bob Dole.