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Moving From the Fringe to the Forefront : Politics: O.C.'s Dana Rohrabacher is having fun with his newfound clout.


WASHINGTON — As a White House speech writer, he put words in the mouth of the Great Communicator. From John Wayne, he learned that a squeeze of lime helps the tequila go down. Like compatriot Oliver North, he sneaked into foreign countries with Indiana Jones derring-do to spur on freedom fighters.

Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher, the 48-year-old bearded surfer and conservative congressman from Huntington Beach, lives his politics on the edge. There's no middle ground and little room for compromise.

Whether it's illegal immigrants or affluent constituents, Rohrabacher has matter-of-factly told them where to get off the public dole.

Now, with Republicans running Capitol Hill, the four-term congressman's blunt rhetoric echoes with more authority--against the Chinese, Vietnamese and other "gangsters" he says violate human rights; against the defenders of affirmative action and the environmentalists he labels "the worst liars in the world."

His biggest fans say he's principled. His adversaries call him names not suitable for print. He styles himself a "truth teller" who operates under the assumption that he is correct in his beliefs.

What is incontrovertible is that Rohrabacher, once dismissed as a member of the right-wing fringe, is a player in this new Republican Congress. Like the dancing elephants on a favorite red tie, it is Rohrabacher who is frolicking now.

Where Rohrabacher's attacks against China might have "seemed outlandish" just a few months ago, one Asia watcher says, he is now an emerging voice on Southeast Asia. "I think the State Department does see [Rohrabacher] as one of many problems that it has, with [North Carolina Republican Sen.] Jesse Helms at the top of the list," he said.

Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a House Democratic leader who has lost immigration debates to Rohrabacher but worked with him on refugee issues, said the Orange County congressman is "definitely having an impact as a member of the majority [party]."

True to his personal motto, "Fighting for freedom and having fun," Rohrabacher reaches beyond his assignments on the International Relations and Science committees. He charges ahead against illegal immigration, gleefully wields the budget ax and gladly leads freshmen lawmakers to the front lines for the Republican cause of the day.

The downside to his outspokenness, Rohrabacher acknowledges, is that he doesn't "get romanced" by his party's leadership, because he's unbending on his positions.

Rohrabacher is cocky, passionate, tireless. He talks tough, walks fast, rides his colleagues, pounces on his foes, and parties with chili and tequila--almost to the point of exhaustion for everyone but himself.

"I should smile more. It takes the edge off, even when it's taken out of context," Rohrabacher says, as he races along the concrete walk leading to the Capitol subway. "I really have to do that. It's something I haven't learned to do yet."

But no amount of smiling can appease fellow conservative Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Pasadena), who has clashed with Rohrabacher over competing patent protection bills.

"He badgers folks until they sign his bill. They do it to get rid of him," Moorhead groused.

Rohrabacher's doggedness, however, also wins him respect.

Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who doesn't usually share Rohrabacher's views, says his colleague on the Science Committee "was not treated very seriously in the past" when he pushed for development of a reusable space vehicle that could replace the space shuttles and reduce costs. Roemer adds: "That perception has changed because of his tenacity on the issue."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the architect of the House immigration reform bill, says of Rohrabacher's push for more extreme controls: "Nothing will distract him when he's talking to you. He comes at you like a cruise missile. He's not going to be sidetracked."

It's easy to see why Rohrabacher is sometimes considered a grandstander or an eccentric. His guitar stands in Newt Gingrich's office suite, awaiting the day the House Speaker has "five minutes" to hear a schmaltzy ballad Rohrabacher wrote called "God Bless."

With all the subtlety of an oil rig off the California coast--whose presence Rohrabacher supports--he touts his song as the GOP's new anthem.

Almost legendary are his off-white pants, worn with a blue-and-white seersucker sports coat long before Forrest Gump made it fashionable, with an American flag sticking out of his breast pocket; the white tennis shoes and socks he used to wear with a suit and the psychedelic shirt with a painter's hat and pants he once sported to an informal budget meeting.

It's an attitude that says, "You can be conservative and be cool too."

Even when Rohrabacher is dressed in the requisite Washington suit and tie, his soft patch of rumpled hair and squint-eyed look leave the impression that the always impatient congressman would rather be in a wet suit, surfing in the Pacific Ocean.

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