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Will Cash Carry Gramm Over the Top In '96 Race?

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SEN. Phil Gramm used two cannons to punctuate the end of his formal announcement for president last week at Texas A&M University. The blasts were a bit of Lone Star bravado -- and a signal that with opening primaries still a year away, GOP presidential candidates are already wheeling out their big guns.

For Texas Senator Gramm, the biggest artillery tube may be money. His early fund-raising has surpassed that of all rivals, both declared and probable. With ready cash, a honed conservative message, and obvious ambition to win, Mr. Gramm has clearly positioned himself as the early chief opponent of the putative front-runner, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

But his unabashed boasting about his fund-raising prowess may play poorly in frugal New Hampshire, legendary early testing ground of presidential dreams. Moreover, his message, centered on balancing the budget, cracking down on crime, and revamping welfare, is delivered without the optimistic mien of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

Not that Mr. Dole, a consummate legislator, is himself often described as ''sunny.'' Both Dole and Gramm are ''fairly direct. You could almost use the word caustic,'' says GOP consultant Eddy Mahe.

Senator Dole, who leads other potential contenders in name recognition, in recent polls, and in organizing in key states, plans to announce on April 10. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander plans to officially launch his candidacy tomorrow, counting on his organization in Iowa and New Hampshire as a means to counter the advantages of the front-runners.

It is Gramm, however, that has grabbed the current headlines as he sprints out of the box. If nothing else, he is already famous for the largest single campaign fund-raiser on record, an event in Dallas last week that deposited $4.1 million in his already bulging campaign warchest.

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