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Dornan Outdoes Himself as Presidential Point Man

October 18, 1992|ERIC BAILEY and ROBERT W. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

GARDEN GROVE — He has the tact of a tiger, the decorum of a Marine platoon storming a beachhead. In his flamboyant, 14-year career in Congress, Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Orange County has never been one to take prisoners.

This is the congressman who, on the House floor, once grabbed a colleague by the necktie and accused him of being a draft-dodger, the gung-ho politician who labeled one vanquished challenger "a sick, pompous little ass" and dubbed TV host Phil Donahue "a boot-licking wimp." He once apologized for calling Vladimir Posner--the American-born Soviet commentator--a "betraying little Jew."

Now the 59-year-old former Air Force fighter pilot has become a controversial combatant in the nastiest presidential campaign in recent history. Dornan was one of the principal architects of the Bush campaign's last-ditch effort to paint the young Bill Clinton as a draft-dodging demonstrator who journeyed to Moscow at the height of the Vietnam War under circumstances that he has not fully explained.

Dornan and other conservatives, who had been hammering Clinton for weeks on the House floor, outlined the attack strategy during an Oval Office meeting with President Bush and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III earlier this month. The same day, the Bush campaign embraced the "Moscow strategy" as part of a broader assault on Clinton's character.

Democrats have denounced the attacks as outright McCarthyism, and even some Republicans have questioned the tactic. Nevertheless, the President's decision to take Dornan's advice has thrust the already well-known Garden Grove Republican into the national spotlight with a vengeance.

Despite his reputation, Dornan said in an interview last week, "I'm a pussycat. I can say to anyone, 'Hey, I'll go buy you a drink, let's drop the hatchet. I didn't mean to be so rough with you.' . . . Let's face it, my opponents have given as good as they've gotten."

His new notoriety apparently hasn't hurt. In recent days, a top Dornan aide reports, the congressman has been deluged with requests to campaign for other Republican candidates since the Clinton controversy erupted. Last Tuesday, for example, Dornan was in Florida at the behest of Jeb Bush, the President's son, promoting the Bush campaign and GOP House hopefuls.

Texas congressional candidate Beau Boulter put it this way, according to Dornan aide Paul Morrell: "Dornan is hot. He's as hot as he's ever been. I need him now."

Dornan's latest brush with notoriety can hardly be a surprise to anyone who has followed his often outrageous, nearly always controversial career.

To conservative Republicans, Dornan is a folk hero, the politician who will say what others won't. With red beard bristling, arms waving and Irish-blue eyes ablaze under a perennially arched brow, Dornan is particularly popular with young conservatives who catch his performances on the House floor via C-SPAN, the cable public affairs network, or on CNN's "Crossfire." Dornan also fills in occasionally for right-wing national talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

At the GOP National Convention in August, Dornan was the man in demand among young Republicans, signing autographs and posing for photos as he steam-rolled around the floor with characteristic bluster.

"He has always been crazy B-1 Bob and he always will be," said a senior Republican campaign strategist, who asked not to be named. "When you watch TV, when you're sitting there with your Ovaltine and Dornan (begins to speak), you throw the cat off your lap and you turn up the sound."

Mary Matalin, the Bush campaign's political director, said of Dornan: "In this era of jumping rats, a guy like Bob Dornan is someone who you appreciate with your whole heart.

"I respect his courage to be flamboyant in a land of milquetoast. He strikes some chord out there. The guy connects with some portion of America."

"He's a man of many passions," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), an inveterate fan of Dornan. "There are no halfway measures with Bob. The things he believes in involve a total immersion. He has a memory that I would stack up with any computer in the world. He is a font of facts and boundless energy. He is hyperkinetic, he never seems to tire. And I suppose if you're a Democrat it's easy to get mad at him."

Democrats consider Dornan a political provocateur who does not shrink from demagoguery, the guy who always goes too far. Many dismiss him as a sideshow to the Washington circus, a carnival clown always good for a laugh. But others note that Dornan's amusing quips cut to the quick--and can often turn nasty.

Former Orange County Rep. Jerry M. Patterson, a Democrat whom Dornan defeated in his 1984 comeback, felt Dornan's sting. After an unusually nasty campaign, Patterson sized up Dornan as a "right-wing extremist" and "nearly a lunatic."

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