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POLITICS : A Square in the Oval Office? Sen. Lugar Pushes Brainy Image : In odd world of presidential campaigning, being smart and serious can be big drawbacks.


BANGOR, Me. — In an odd way, terrorists have stalked the presidential campaign of Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.

The soft-spoken Hoosier announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on April 19 with an intricately orchestrated extravaganza. But the media were preoccupied with that morning's bombing in Oklahoma City.

Earlier this month, after seven months of single-digit poll support and negligible name recognition, his campaign hoped to finally galvanize support by pulling out all stops at Maine's GOP straw poll.

A notoriously average orator, Lugar addressed the crowd at the Nov. 4 contest with near-pizazz. Streamers skyrocketed through the Bangor Auditorium. Strobes flashed, balloons and confetti spilled from the rafters and the P. A. blasted a kidney-thumping version of Aretha Franklin's "Freedom," with the singers wailing a modified refrain: "Lugar! Lugar!"

This time, national reporters did indeed cluster around the senator, who placed a distant second in the contest to Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas but far ahead of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner.

But their first questions had nothing to do with Lugar's showing, which he had hoped would give a lift to his sputtering campaign.

Rather, they turned to the respected foreign relations expert for words of wisdom on the assassination, two hours earlier, of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

And there's the real problem.

Lugar, you see, wears the mantle of "thinking man's candidate," which in the curious realm of modern political punditry is the equivalent of a dunce cap. He gets as splendid reviews as any candidate: Time magazine called him "a genuine truth teller;" the Wall Street Journal said he's "a genuine heavyweight."

And that, the pundits figure, is enough to hobble any contender.

Sure they're sufficiently savvy to appreciate Lugar, but American voters, according to this line of thought, are too addled by the culture of celebrity, too addicted to the adrenaline of sound-bite politics to embrace someone so serious.

In his announcement speech last April, Lugar rejected such cynicism: "Americans know that the presidency is not entertainment."

But the yawn factor has stuck with him. So Lugar's campaign is pushing hard on the hip-to-be-square approach.

This week, it unleashed on New Hampshire a series of commercials that focus on Lugar's character. His staff has high hopes they'll appeal to voters who may have been leaning toward Colin L. Powell before the retired general's decision not to enter the race.

As the Maine straw poll loomed, Lugar's campaign had massaged that state with ads featuring juxtaposed images: Here's the fit-yet-grandfatherly senator--dark suit, silver hair, gentle smile. There, in a People magazine photo, are President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, decked out in the Blues Brothers' black and groove-dude shades they had donned at a recent Hollywood fund-raiser.

Lugar staffers refer to it as "the dignity spot."

It seems apt. Ask Lugar, as he lurches in a small plane over the autumnal forests of Maine, whether he wears boxers or jockey shorts, and he runs an imaginary zipper over his lips. "No comment," he says.

Ask about his new proposal to get sugar companies to preserve environmentally critical acreage in the Florida Everglades, and he's off and running, enthusiastically spouting arcane statistics about sugar beets, sugar cane and wetlands.

One issue voters seem to connect with--if only wishfully--is Lugar's call to abolish the Internal Revenue Service.

Appearing on a radio talk show in Bangor one morning, Lugar said that his admittedly radical plan to replace corporate and individual income taxes with a 17% national sales tax was inspired by the financial anxiety he had seen in Maine and nationwide.

The only way to cure that Angst , he argued, is to increase growth and productivity--and that, in turn, is best accomplished by encouraging savings and investment. A consumption tax would accomplish that, while also eliminating the IRS' "increasing intrusions into people's lives."

James P. Lucier, research director of Americans for Tax Reform, has studied the plan. "Lugar is a very smart man, but he didn't do his homework on this one. . . . " says Lucier, who favors a flat tax. "No country in the world has ever had a sales tax over 10% that didn't collapse."

To which Lugar responds: "I'm not looking to emulate the failed attempts of other nations. . . . I'm saying we'd succeed because we finally got it right."

So far, neither that nor any other issue has served to boost Lugar's standing much. Recent New Hampshire polls, for instance, show him running neck and neck among that state's GOP voters with publisher Malcolm (Steve) S. Forbes Jr. and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander--at around 6%.

But Lugar's campaign insists its two-part strategy is on track.

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