WASHINGTON — President Clinton has been in office a scant six months, but already the rustling of potential Republican challengers has inspired C-SPAN to launch a program aimed at the hopelessly addicted. It's called "Road to the White House '96."
Among the pols featured on the series' debut a few weeks back was California's own Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the conservative Garden Grove Republican who serves up incendiary oratory on the House floor like a Cajun cook slinging hot sauce.
When the public affairs network caught up with him, Dornan was pressing the flesh at a conservative gathering in New Hampshire, where the first presidential primary of the '96 season is scheduled to get under way in about 2 1/2 years.
Officially, the 60-year-old Air Force veteran says he's just testing the waters. But those who know him say the flamboyant redhead appears ready to leap off the high dive.
"I still need the rest of the year to sort all this out," Dornan said in an interview from his Virginia home.
But in the next breath, he sounded as if he's made up his mind. "I'm going to have fun. I will be a factor," Dornan said. "I'm going to enjoy the hell out of myself, with an energy level that is a gift from God."
The notion that Dornan, who has won a host of supporters and made a legion of enemies with his signature crusades against abortion and homosexuality, should aspire to the presidency strikes some critics as amusing, if not downright laughable.
Dornan won the right to an on-air reply this spring when KCOP-TV commentator Bill Press, who also serves as chairman of the California Democratic Party, told his viewers, "Not to worry, this candidate doesn't have a chance."
Equally amused was Catherine Moore of the Democratic National Committee.
"He's certainly somebody who likes to abuse national issues," Moore said. "I think that if he wants to run, it's a good thing that he starts now. It will take that long for people to pay attention to the kinds of things he says."
But several conservative commentators said Dornan could liven up what promises to be a mad Republican scramble in New Hampshire--and could influence the outcome.
"We were happy to see him up here," said Joe McQuaid, editor in chief of Manchester, N.H.'s conservative Union Leader. "He's outspoken, and therefore refreshing. He doesn't fail to speak his mind, although I'm not sure I agree with everything he has to say."
The only statewide paper, the Union Leader has a Sunday circulation of about 100,000, and often sets the agenda for political coverage by television reporters in New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts.
Dornan is not the only Republican to make the pilgrimage. Already, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm have dropped by to chat with Nackey S. Loeb, the paper's publisher and widow of former publisher William Loeb, a legendary conservative firebrand.
The field is likely to become even more crowded, with an expected bid from Jack Kemp, the former secretary of housing and urban development, and the possibility of a run by Dick Cheney, who served as secretary of defense.
"I've heard maybe 20 or 25 candidates mentioned," said Howard Phillips, chairman of the Washington-based Conservative Caucus.
So where, given the rarefied company, does that leave Robert K. Dornan, congressman from Garden Grove?
"He's not a kid anymore," said Paul M. Weyrich, national chairman of the conservative Free Congress Political Action Committee. "He has been in the House now, with the exception of one term, since 1976. . . . It's unlikely that he will get elected to the United States Senate. . . . If he is going to make an impact on American politics, why not now?"
With his well-oiled national fund-raising organization, and a public profile enhanced by guest spots on CNN's "Crossfire" and Rush Limbaugh's afternoon radio show, Dornan is in a position to capture enough attention in the New Hampshire polls to warrant serious media coverage, said David M. Mason, a political analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"He can help influence the debate and, perhaps, act as a broker on behalf of himself and the interests he represents," Mason said.
And that role would seem to suit Dornan just fine.
"I intend to influence the history of this country," Dornan said, without a trace of modesty.
To the critics who suggest that the former television talk show host is simply looking to enhance his chances of landing another broadcast job after he leaves Congress, Dornan has nothing but disdain.
"All the years I was on television, I had only one purpose in mind: to be part of U.S. history and go to the U.S. Congress. Why would I want to go backwards? This is not designed to put me on a track back to television or radio. My track is history."