WASHINGTON — Sen. John Ashcroft has an idea that seems almost quaint these days: Political leaders are also moral leaders for the nation.
"Leaders are teachers," the Missouri Republican says. "What we condone, we reinforce. What we condemn, we diminish."
That's a maverick concept at a time when many people, far from looking to politicians as moral exemplars, assume they are a pack of crooks, philanderers and schemers.
But it's an idea that has driven Ashcroft to become one of the first and most pointed critics of President Clinton's response to allegations that he had sex with a former White House intern. It also inspired Ashcroft to criticize fellow Republicans recently for meeting at a glitzy Mississippi casino ("Our party should not sell its soul to the gambling lobby," he scolded). And, if he's lucky, it will help make him the darling of GOP social and religious conservatives as he pursues his longshot idea of running for president in 2000.
There are few darker horses in the field of potential candidates for the GOP nomination than Ashcroft. When New Hampshire Republicans recently were asked their preferences, he landed at the bottom of a long list of wannabes.
But of late, Ashcroft, 55, has begun cropping up in the middle of various Senate debates to espouse conservative dogma. He crusaded against Clinton's judicial nominees for their alleged liberal activism. And he sought to block Dr. David Satcher's appointment as U.S. surgeon general for his views on abortion.
He was elected to the Senate in 1994, part of the crowd that helped the Republicans win control of Congress by espousing a more confrontational, anti-Washington, pro-family brand of conservatism. The fate of Ashcroft's political ambitions will be one measure of how much the GOP, after an interlude of compromising with Clinton, wants to return to that tack as it heads into the presidential election.
"A year from now we may be really looking for a true, undiluted conservative who can win the election," said Wayne Berman, an Ashcroft friend and finance director of the Republican Governors Assn. "A centrist Republican isn't going to beat a centrist Democrat."
Ashcroft is trying to elbow his way out of obscurity into a field that has no commanding front-runner. But he is up against potential candidates far better known than he, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
His strategy hinges on grabbing the GOP's hard-core conservative base, backers who can help propel an obscure candidate into contention. A recent straw poll of leaders of the Christian Coalition identified Ashcroft as their top choice for president. Indeed, if those leaders could design their own presidential candidate, they might trace the outlines of Ashcroft's life story.
He is the son and grandson of Assemblies of God ministers. Ashcroft is married to a business law professor and is the father of three children. He's a churchgoing man who begins every day with devotionals. He's a teetotaler. He composes gospel music. He is writing a book about the moral wisdom of his father, who died the day after he saw Ashcroft sworn into the Senate.
"There is no question he is a devoted Christian," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). "He's not just modeling his character to fit the issue. He lives that life and he believes it."
But there's another side of Ashcroft that is a little less strait-laced. While on his farm in Springfield, Mo., he dons a denim jacket and rides his motorcycle. His prize possession is a zippy yellow 1973 Mustang convertible. He keeps an electric keyboard in his Senate office and sings baritone in a quartet, the Singing Senators, that also features Craig, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.).
But neither the ministry nor music ever really competed with politics for Ashcroft's career ambitions. A lawyer, Ashcroft was elected state attorney general in 1976 and served as Missouri's governor for two terms from 1984 to 1992.
But for all his political experience, Ashcroft has positioned himself as something of an outsider in Washington. He strongly favors congressional term limits. (He has said that he will serve only two terms.) He opposed the budget-balancing deal crafted by Clinton and his own party leaders last year.
In general, Ashcroft seems averse to half-a-loaf politics. That may make him ill-suited to legislative life, but it could tap into voters' aversion to Washington wheeling and dealing. "If you start out focusing on the doable, you give away too much," he says. "If you focus on the noble, you change the definition of the doable."