It's long past quitting time, but the phones won't quit ringing. "Sen. Bob Smith's office. How may I help you?" the two receptionists repeat almost non-stop. They mumble a few "um-hmm's" and "OK's" before punching the next line lit up on their console.
Reinforcements wander in. "Can you listen to the woman on two?" pleads one overworked receptionist. "She's not done talking yet." With each call, the sheaf of papers on the corner of each desk grows a little taller. The stacks are already several inches tall, and they're relatively fresh; earlier stacks have already been spirited away to other offices for analysis.
This is what it feels like to be at the center of the top political story of the day. Sen. Smith, the man at dead center, is a few feet away in his private office, taking calls from a steady stream of fellow senators and media hot-shots. Four hours ago he took the floor of the Senate to bid a not-very-fond farewell to the Republican Party-the first sitting senator to do so in some 50 years. From now on, newspapers will refer to him as Sen. Bob Smith (I-N.H.). The "I" (for independent) looks funny, but Mr. Smith thinks the voters will get used to it. He hopes they'll even learn to like it, since he's running for president.
For now, the novelty of it has won him something he could never get as a Republican: media attention. He's done Larry King Live. NBC's Today Show. Fox News Channel. CNN. Radio stations are pleading for soundbites, and newspapers have to settle for whatever crumbs of his time they can gather.
Not bad for a guy who's registering about 1 percent in the polls.
To the cynics, those poll numbers explain everything. Sen. Smith-like his 10 GOP colleagues-was being swamped by the George W. Bush tidal wave. He couldn't raise money. Journalists ignored him. The public barely recognized him. Bolting the party was just a way to get attention, the political equivalent of a two-year-old's temper tantrum.
At least, that was the reaction of Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee. In a sharply worded letter, he called the senator's move a "serious mistake for you personally, with only a marginal political impact-and a counterproductive one at that.... I hope you don't confuse the success of our shared message with your failure as its messenger."
"America has never liked a sore loser," added an angry Steve Duprey, chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. "This is a selfish move and is doomed to failure. It signals the end of his political career in New Hampshire."
Mr. Smith was not particularly surprised by the attacks of his former colleagues. "This is the establishment. They're interested in poll numbers. They're interested in how much money you have. They're interested in your name recognition," he said. "They've walked away from the principles."
In an interview with WORLD just hours after his resignation speech, Mr. Smith repeatedly blasted the Republican Party hierarchy-a faceless blob Mr. Smith and other conservative critics call "Establishment," pointedly never naming names. "When candidates are not leading on the issues, it's hard for the party to keep sharp and debate the issues," he said, in reference to Gov. Bush's soft-pedaling of the abortion issue. "A great party should be willing to crusade on issues. That's how you change attitudes. It's how you lead. It's how you win."
The conservative second-runners still in the GOP treated the Smith announcement with respect: "It's a wake-up call that the Republican establishment and the inside-
the-Beltway, big-government politicians are distancing themselves from the core conservative principles that gave us our majority in Congress and would give us a majority to win the White House again," said Steve Forbes, while campaigning in Iowa.
In an open letter to Mr. Nicholson, Gary Bauer called the senator "a man of deep conviction and unwavering principle.... I cannot agree that he was motivated by narrow or selfish considerations. Rather, I believe that like millions of other Republicans, he is concerned by the retreat of our party's leadership on matters of fundamental principle."
Such a deep-seated resentment of the Republican establishment may signal more headaches ahead for the GOP. Mr. Bauer and Mr. Buchanan have frequently been cited as two candidates likely to leave the party if they perceive that their conservative principles are being abandoned. Though Mr. Smith's departure, in itself, may have a negligible impact, any such future defections could doom the eventual Republican nominee.
Although Mr. Bauer told the Associated Press, "I have absolutely no intention of leaving the Republican Party," he sounded more equivocal in an interview with WORLD. "I'm pretty much committed to staying in the party," he said from his campaign headquarters shortly after the Smith announcement. And even if he doesn't bolt, he refuses to commit his support to a moderate nominee: If the GOP standard-bearer is not sufficiently conservative, "I'll be fishing with my son" instead of attending the nominating convention, he said.
Mr. Bauer thinks many voters are deeply disillusioned with the Republican Party. "All of the conservatives in the race are getting a fairly steady stream of emails and faxes from people who've already given up and said, 'Let's leave the party.' One of my concerns is that the party establishment may not understand how widespread that feeling is out there."
Most Republican strategists don't expect a true three-man race. Instead, they believe, a conservative third-party challenge will merely siphon votes away from the GOP nominee and guarantee another four years of liberal, Democratic control of the White House.
Faced with that scenario, Mr. Smith could offer no real justification for his gambit. "I've never understood that argument," he said blithely, then turned his attention back to the sins of the GOP: Republicans voted to support the president's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. Republicans voted for gun control. Republicans voted not to convict and remove the president for lying under oath. "We have one party: moderate Republicans joining with Democrats and governing."
In his vision for political realignment, disaffected voters from across the spectrum will unite behind his candidacy: "Reagan Democrats, non-voters who are turned off by politics, conservative Republicans, independents, Libertarians, Reform Party members." He imagines this voting bloc will sweep him into office as it did Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura-who, Mr. Smith likes to point out, also started at about 1 percent in the polls.
Indeed, Mr. Smith planned to fly to Minnesota later in the week to pay his respects to the maverick governor, who is locked in a battle with Ross Perot for control of the Reform Party. But comparisons with Mr. Ventura's come-from-behind win don't stand up to close scrutiny. The former wrestler won by downplaying the very social issues that are most important to Mr. Smith. A party spokesman put it bluntly: "The Reform Party has no social issues."
More likely, Mr. Smith will run under the banner of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which, despite its name, takes a hard-line stance on social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights. Mr. Smith acknowledges he's been in talks with party leader Howard Phillips, though he has not yet publicly committed to him.
Mr. Phillips, the Taxpayers candidate in the last two elections, says the party will be on the ballot in every state this year-an unusual accomplishment for a minor party. Furthermore, he has said that Mr. Smith could count on millions of dollars in advertising support should he seek the party's nomination.
For now, however, Mr. Smith is a man without a party. As GOP leaders scramble to prevent other defections, they seem to be backing off their initial outrage at Mr. Smith's move. Indeed, the more moderated response that followed the Nicholson letter may be an indication that the party intends to take conservatives more seriously.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee, was originally rumored to be demanding that Mr. Smith reimburse the NSCC's contributions to his last campaign. After the speech, however, Mr. McConnell praised Mr. Smith as a model Republican: "I think he's going to continue to act like one and should be treated like one."
The hierarchy, meanwhile, is watching to gauge public reaction to Mr. Smith's defection. Republicans will be happy if the Smith story fades, but their nightmare scenario is that other, higher-profile candidates follow him.