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New Contender for the Morality Vote

Besides being the junior US senator from Missouri, John Ashcroft is a baritone singer, a country-music composer, and man whose idea of relaxing is to ride motorcycles around his farm in southern Missouri.

In person, this easygoing former two-term governor of the "Show Me" state comes across as a kind of modern-day Pa Walton.

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But like a duck paddling placidly across a pond, there's a lot more going on under the surface.

Mr. Ashcroft is testing the waters for a presidential bid. And his disarming Midwestern manner belies a brand of morals-centered conservatism that makes him an early favorite with the Christian right.

Although his quest for the Oval Office is seen as one of the longer shots of the 2000 race, his message is establishing moral leadership as a theme of the coming campaign season. It is a contrast that could hurt Democrats.

"He's saying things that resonate. It carries weight and signals how voters are thinking," says Bill Phillips former chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. "But it's way too early to know if he'll even be at the starting gate. You have to get the horse from the barn to the gate, and that's what's going on now."

Ashcroft has campaigned in 18 states this year. And he raised a respectable $300,000 in the first quarter of 1998 - more than he got in all of last year.

This Yale-educated baritone doesn't come across as a conservative fire-breather. He's part of the "Singing Senators," a GOP quartet that also includes majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, James Jeffords of Vermont, and Larry Craig of Idaho.

Character counts

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Ashcroft's national profile began rising earlier this year as one of the few Republicans to aggressively attack President Clinton's character over the Monica Lewinsky matter. "I don't think he's been a moral leader on many issues.... The kind of activities that have been described are reprehensible," Ashcroft says. "I haven't said whether I thought he is guilty," he adds. But "if he did it, I think he should resign."

Ashcroft sees the Lewinsky matter as a symptom of a larger crisis in moral leadership that few have had the courage to criticize. It's a message some think the GOP isn't sounding loud enough. During a recent appearance on C-SPAN, most callers congratulated Ashcroft on his stand. "I'm tired of the timidity" of other Republicans, said one.

Many in the Christian right are backing Ashcroft because they think this champion of "family-friendly" legislation will appeal to the wider electorate.

He's working to abolish the marriage penalty in the tax code, for instance. And he wants to allow hourly wage earners to have more control of their flex time. In his proposal, overtime could be collected in as time off in lieu of pay. Ashcroft says this would enable breadwinners to attend their children's activities.

Despite these broad proposals, his track record reflects courtship of a narrower base. He is a dedicated foe of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's an avid abortion opponent who prays daily with his staff. He may also be the single biggest obstacle to Mr. Clinton's judicial nominees getting Senate confirmation - something that has even frustrated some in his own party, including Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah.

But Christian conservatives are also lining up behind Ashcroft because they want one of their own in the Oval Office. Many still feel betrayed by moderate Republicans like Bob Dole and George Bush, who, they say, didn't fully represent their values. Big name boosters pushing Ashcroft include Christian Coalition chairman Pat Robertson, who just donated $10,000 to Ashcroft.

Ashcroft's father was a Pentecostal minister and "he speaks the language," says Mr. Phillips. "They understand he has been involved in it personally, not just politically, for a long time. Bush's spiritual side was different than the Christian right is used to."

Much profile-raising to do

His message is drawing support in among conservatives, but it's unclear how much excitement it will generate partywide, much less among the entire electorate.

"When you're not very well known and not distinguished from others, you have to do something to get attention," says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at Ohio's University of Akron. "But you have to be careful that what you did for attention early doesn't come back to haunt you."

Ashcroft is trying to expand his base by marrying the socially conservative side of the party with pinstriped fiscal conservatives. "When that has happened in the past in this party, we have won elections," Ashcroft says.

It's a formula that flat-tax proponent Steve Forbes is also using. Mr. Forbes has added a "pro-family," anti-abortion plank to his platform for the 2000 campaign.

Meanwhile, despite Ashcroft's attacks on the White House, there is little concern at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about his impact, or his chances as a candidate. "Is he the guy from Missouri?" asks a sarcastic Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman. "We'll see how far he gets along before we take [him] too seriously."

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