DES MOINES — To Harold M. Stassen, running for President is a little like eating potato chips. Every time he vows to quit, he has to reach for just one more.
Now 80, the Grand Old Party's grand old loser began nibbling again here recently as he launched his 1988 bid for the Republican nomination--probably his eighth, he says, but he has lost count.
There were no officious advance men, no banners, no flyers, no television cameras or hoopla of any kind as Stassen slipped into town to test the waters for the Feb. 8 Iowa presidential caucuses.
Stassen drove from his home in St. Paul, Minn., made a courtesy visit to Gov. Terry E. Branstad and then headed to state GOP headquarters to consult with Republican leaders. The party chairman was out of town and the executive director had called in sick.
Temporary headquarters was at the Best Western Starlite Inn in Room 721, the one with the big black smudge in the blue carpet by the bed. On the sink was a half-eaten bag of Apple Newtons and a carton of milk. The would-be President wore an awkward, Kennedyesque toupee, and his bulky 6-foot-3 frame was covered by a rumpled blue pinstripe suit. A tangle of thread trailed from the right coat pocket and the frayed flap looked as if it had been chewed by a puppy.
This, he explained, was to be a campaign of substance, not style. "They (his Republican opponents) are not in my view coming to grips before the people with the programs that are needed for America in the decade ahead," Stassen said. "I recognize it's partly a matter of this tendency to take a poll and try to follow the poll, and that of course is the very opposite of leadership. I feel that you need to lead the people. That's really what I've more or less done all my life and that's what I'm setting out to do right now."
For the last four decades or so, the people have not responded to Stassen's call. He has been beaten by Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Gerald R. Ford defeated him four years later, as did Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
He tried and failed twice to become governor of Pennsylvania and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Philadelphia, where he lived and practiced law for a while.
There was a time, though, when Stassen knew triumph. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was known as the "boy wonder" of American politics, on the fast track to fame and power.
By the time he was 23, Stassen had graduated from law school at the University of Minnesota and had been elected chief prosecutor for his native Dakota County. At 31, he won the first of three two-year terms as governor of Minnesota, the youngest person ever to run a state then or since.
Witnessed Japan Surrender
He resigned in 1943 to take up his commission as an officer in the Naval Reserve, serving in the Pacific as assistant chief of staff to Adm. William Halsey. He was a witness to the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in August, 1945. A few months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had borrowed him from the Navy to serve on the U.S. delegation that had helped to draft the U.N. charter in San Francisco.
In 1948, he was a serious contender for the Republican nomination, whereas in 1952 his candidacy served more as a stand-in for Eisenhower, who had been commanding Allied troops in Europe and therefore was forbidden to do any pre-convention electioneering. Eisenhower rewarded him with key Administration posts as a foreign affairs adviser and arms control negotiator.
Then Stassen crossed Republican leaders when he tried to organize a move to dump Vice President Nixon from the 1956 party ticket. A year later, he committed a serious gaffe at a disarmament conference with the Soviet Union when he showed a working draft of a proposal to the Soviets before all the American allies had a chance to review it. Stassen was reprimanded by Eisenhower for embarrassing the Administration with its allies. Not long after, he resigned from government and his career as a public official ebbed.
'Battle It Out'
But, ever optimistic, he has refused to admit defeat. "I decided back in college days that, if you're going to have an impact, you've got to get into the political arena and battle it out," he explained. "And the whole process that we go through requires losers as well as winners. It would be hard for anybody to top me on variety and length of experience, that's a cinch."