"I'M GOING TO BE president of the United States," Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire says in a perfectly even voice. "I really believe that."

It's not a majority view. Two weeks ago, only Smith, his family, and selected political science professors seemed to know he was running for president. He was polling twelfth among the twelve announced Republican candidates; only one percent of the voters in his own state said they planned to vote for him. Things looked grim for Smith 2000. Then, last week, Smith announced he was leaving the Republican party and becoming an Independent. Instantly, the electoral calculus changed. Bob Smith may have been last among Republicans, but in the field of third-party candidates, he is indisputably Number One.

Of course, depending on how you count, Smith may also be the only third-party candidate in the presidential race. Not that it makes any difference to him. The point is, Smith explains from his office in the Dirksen Building, people are excited about the possibility of a Smith administration. "Without exaggeration, we've received 5,000 pledges of support," he says. "They've come from Republicans, Democrats, Independents. It's unbelievable. We're not equipped to handle it." Smith pauses, allowing time for the sheer size of the political tsunami to sink in. No reporter, he recognizes, should have to take news like this at face value. "You probably think I'm trying to game you," he says understandingly. "But I'm not."

Smith doesn't seem like the kind of politician who goes around gaming people. Rather, he seems perpetually gamed, the sort of person for whom life's unpleasant realities dawn slowly and hard. You get the feeling Smith was the last kid on his block to learn the truth about Santa Claus.

He was almost certainly the last person in Washington to discover that the Republican platform is irrelevant to actual politics. Smith was outraged when he found out. "The Republican platform," he declared in his party-switching speech to the Senate, "is a meaningless document that has been put out there so that suckers like me and maybe suckers like you out there can read it."

Smith's speech went on like this for close to an hour. Through all of it, he howled like a man deceived, the lone member of the Senate Sucker Caucus. He even read portions of the platform aloud. It was a mean thing to do -- as close to a dirty trick as Smith is probably capable of -- but instructive nonetheless. "As a first step in reforming government," Smith thundered, reciting the painfully hopeful words of some unnamed party scribe, "we support elimination of the Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Energy." Whatever happened to that promise? he demanded. Or to the promise to defund Legal Services? Not to mention public broadcasting, the U.N. and the National Endowment for the Arts. And where's the legislation that would "make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children"? After five and a half years of Republican control of Congress, Smith wanted to know, where is any of it?

It's easy to sympathize with Smith. (Imagine if you woke up one morning after 10 years in office and found politics in your political party.) It's harder to understand how he made it all the way to the U.S. Senate, much less how he'll mount a credible presidential campaign. For the moment, though, several of the other Republican candidates appear to view Smith as useful. Before Smith had even announced his defection, Gary Bauer and Dan Quayle chimed in to say they could understand the senator's frustration with the unprincipled, lemming-like (read: George W. Bush-supporting) Republican Establishment. "We are the party of middle America, not the party of the country club," explained Quayle, who grew up on a golf course.

The idea seems to be that Smith's attacks on Republican moderates will call attention to Bush's fundamentally moderate positions on social issues, thereby energizing the fabled Republican Base. Once energized, the Base will recognize Bush for the Rockefeller Republican he is, and support other, more conservative candidates. In the end, the reasoning goes, Bush may still win, but he'll have to act more conservative to do so. "The Smith thing," says Bauer strategist Jeff Bell, "underscores what Gary has been saying all along, which is that there is going to be a contest."

It's not a totally crackpot theory. Smith will probably join the U.S. Taxpayers party, which is already on the ballot in several states. (The likelihood he'll sign up with the much larger Reform party diminished when Jesse Ventura didn't return his call.) And Smith's defection could increase the leverage of the remaining challengers to Bush. In any event, he won't need much money to run -- Smith is happy to drive himself to events -- and he seems deadly serious about staying in till November 2000. And if Bush is the nominee, Smith is betting that, as a third-party candidate, he can pick up the support Bush's failed conservative challengers have left behind.

Every candidate, of course, has a Scenario, the sometimes Rube Goldberg-like series of events that, if executed in sequence, leads to victory. Strategists at the George W. Bush campaign aren't impressed with Smith's. They have no snappy explanation for why Smith doesn't matter. They don't even bother to scoff. Bob who?

Smith seems ready for this. He knows there will always be some who will dismiss his campaign as a mere curiosity. "Some people view it as not even serious," Smith says in a tone that suggests he's passing on a secret. Then again, some people haven't seen the mail that has poured into Smith's office over the past few days. The mail that says Bob Smith of New Hampshire is going to be the next president of the United States. The mail that Smith fervently, wholeheartedly believes. "I think young people are going to be joining this campaign by the millions," he says. "I feel very confident about this. I'm absolutely convinced I can win. I wouldn't do it if I wasn't."

Smith pauses again. He's caught himself gloating. "I'm not trying to boast," he says, almost embarrassed. "I'm just trying to tell you what I think we can do."

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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