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Nicknamed 'B-1 Bob' for backing costly jets, the feisty conservative runs as a one-man 'truth-squad' who steers the GOP to the right

BOB DORNAN is an hour late for a candidate's forum in tiny Bedford, N.H., delayed, he says, by flying on a no-frills airline. By the time the carrot-topped Mr. Dornan steps up to the podium much of the audience has already left.

But those who stayed to find out why the nine-term congressman should be president are in for a wild ride. The California Republican grips the lectern like the control yoke of a jet fighter and veers from subject to subject without stopping for a breath, much less for applause.

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Dornan's speech jumps from his experiences as an Air Force pilot to replacing the current income-tax system with a national sales tax to trumpeting his role in attaching a measure to the defense budget barring any soldiers found carrying the HIV virus. Along the way he lists his credentials: 18 years in the House of Representatives; 22 years and four months in the armed services (five on active duty, the rest in the reserves); 41 years of marriage; five children - ''all of them thoughtful, voting, taxpaying conservatives'' - and, naturally, 10 grandchildren.

Even Dornan admits that, as a first-timer, he faces almost ''insurmountable'' odds. He has very little presence in New Hampshire or Iowa, and his support barely registers in poll results. His meager funds finance a handful of appearances, handled by a campaign staff run by his daughter and consisting mostly of family members.

The campaign mostly takes the form of appearances on free television or talk-radio shows. Dornan's campaign schedule notes remind him to ask one such radio station to call back so he doesn't have to pay for the long-distance call. And he is covering his bets by running simultaneously to keep his House seat.

Still the question remains - why is Robert Dornan running for the presidency? In a long telephone interview from his congressional office, Dornan offers this response:

''We are facing financial bankruptcy at the same time we are facing moral bankruptcy. That's a truly deadly combination. Most Republicans are well aware - and so are conservative Democrats - of the financial bankruptcy. But they are utterly uncomfortable speaking about moral bankruptcy.''

Dornan's conservative message is captured in a pithy slogan he has used for a decade - ''Faith, Family, and Freedom.'' It embodies some of his favorite themes (defense of the military and the balanced-budget themes) and points of attack (abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and other signs of ''cultural meltdown'').

But Dornan has been unable to distinguish himself from others who are also pounding away on the ''moral values'' message, particularly anti-abortion activist Alan Keyes and populist crusader Pat Buchanan.

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Ideologically and personally, Dornan bears the closest resemblance to Mr. Buchanan. Like him, Dornan comes out of journalism, with a touch of Hollywood thrown in. Dornan left a bit-acting career to become a broadcast journalist, and finally a successful television talk show host with a decidedly conservative bent. He shares Buchanan's mixture of Catholic orthodoxy and fierce anticommunism.

Dornan also likes to take populist shots at the corporate well-to-do. ''The rich don't need a president,'' Dornan told the audience of New Hampshire seniors. ''A president is for the middle class, because they pay almost all the bills, and for the poor and the truly vulnerable.''

But Dornan draws the lines with his fellow fiery conservative in other ways. He faults Buchanan for ''embracing concepts that I'm utterly opposed to - isolationism and protectionism.'' Dornan lightly chides Buchanan for having ''no desire to reach out to traditionally liberal voting blocs like African-Americans and Jewish-Americans.''

'Warm and cuddly'

Even compared with the outspoken Buchanan, the California congressman has a combative style.

''The good thing about Bob Dornan is that I come off looking warm and cuddly next to him,'' Buchanan quips to the waiting New Hampshire crowd.

Dornan's specialty is delivering rambling, passionate, and sometimes insulting speeches from the floor of the Congress during what is called ''special orders,'' time allocated after the House has concluded its regular business. This gives him access to C-Span's television audience, essential to cementing a core of conservative backers across the country. Using direct-mail campaigns, those supporters have provided funding that regularly ranks Dornan among the top 10 fund-raisers in Congress (although they are more reluctant, he admits, to back a presidential bid).

''Dornan is not a congressman from Orange County - he sees his constituency as the country,'' says Mike Kaspar, a political consultant and frequent Dornan critic.

Among his supporters, Dornan is beloved for his no-holds-barred assaults on the Democratic Party, and Bill Clinton in particular. In a typical late-night appearance after the State of Union address, he talked about ''a certain 23-year-old Rhodes scholar who is ditching class to travel Europe lobbying for a Ho Chi Minh victory,'' referring to the president's student antiwar activities. Such talk makes him popular on the ''hot radio'' circuit, filling in sometimes for Rush Limbaugh.

But it has not always made Dornan popular among his congressional colleagues, including conservative members of his own party. ''I'm not an admirer of the president,'' says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, ''but I would never say the things about any president of the United States that Congressman Dornan does. You just can't do those things. It's totally inappropriate.''

On more than one occasion, Dornan has also gotten into public tiffs with fellow Republicans. Two years ago, he caused a stir by attacking Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson (R), making pointed remarks on the House floor about his homosexual orientation.

''His assessment was if you do happen to be gay, you can't possibly be a Republican,'' says an aide to Mr. Gunderson. ''Basically, Bob Dornan's [operating mode] is polemics and character assassination.''

Even Newt Gingrich comes in for a bit of Dornan fire. He accuses him of having ''cut my legs off'' by failing to back an amendment last December that would have barred funding for sending American troops to Bosnia.

''Gingrich is on the rocks now,'' Dornan proclaims in the interview. He says the House Speaker should stop taking advice from Gunderson. ''You take advice from me and stop hanging around with all these people who aren't conservatives.''

There is practically no Dornan speech or appearance that does not talk about the military, or about his own service record. His support for weapons systems, including the ''star wars'' missile-defense system, is so legendary that it earned him the nickname ''B-1 Bob.'' Dornan himself joined the Air Force as a pilot in 1953, at the end of the Korean war, and served until 1958, with a long stint in the reserves after that. While he denies any regrets, Dornan often reveals an unease about never having served in combat.

''I have bled for my country,'' Dornan said in his speech announcing his presidential bid. ''When I was smashed in the face by a jet fighter's canopy ejecting, I came as close to death as Bob Dole did.''

Dornan points to his experiences as correspondent in Vietnam to prove his battle credentials - ''I was in combat,'' he says defiantly. He is vehement as well about his role in championing the cause of prisoners of war and missing in action (POW-MIA) in Vietnam, as well as continuing to strongly oppose normalization of relations with Vietnam.

Friendly fire

That cause has brought him into a particularly nasty fight with Senator McCain, a decorated Vietnam war hero, a pilot who spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. The senator has been a key figure both on resolving the POW-MIA issue and in supporting the restoration of diplomatic ties with Vietnam.

In a recent Senate-House conference on the defense bill, McCain strongly opposed a Dornan-authored amendment setting new procedures for dealing with the missing.

''I was trying to take [the amendment] out,'' recounts McCain. Dornan assailed him, accusing him of deserting the MIAs and their families. ''He said it five times. I had no choice but to walk out of the room. For him to allege that I could somehow abandon the families of my squadron-mates is so offensive that I have no words for it.''

Asked about this altercation, Dornan's voice raises an octave or two. ''John thinks he owns this issue,'' he says, referring to the Arizona senator. ''He should stop torturing the families.... We had to push him out of the way. And I won. He didn't. I'll tell you where he beat me - he beat me with normalizing relations with the people who tortured him.''

Dornan's love of political combat has made him a formidable political opponent, as those who have dared to challenge him for his congressional seat can testify. ''He's a great campaigner,'' says Robert Stiens, a consultant to Jim Prince, who is running for the Democratic nomination against Dornan.

For those who think this is Dornan's last hurrah, think again. The proud grandfather is already talking about the next presidential race. ''When I don't have a Gramm or a Buchanan in my face, and Dole would have either become president or retired, then my day will come.''

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