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He's not really a hopeful

Polling at 0% in Iowa, cantankerous former Sen. Mike Gravel adds odd flavor to the Democratic debates.

August 20, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel is to these many Democratic primary debates and forums what Uncle Charley was to "My Three Sons": a cantankerous observer of the misbehavior around him, by turns grumpy, sage-like and loving.

And so it was again Sunday morning on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," Gravel coming out of the kitchen in his figurative apron at the first sanctioned debate of the Iowa primary.

"Stop and think," he'll preface his Uncle Charley-ish churlishness. Gravel even bears a subtle resemblance to William Demarest, who played the character on that long-running comedy series.

"Stop and think," Gravel said Sunday morning, when the issue before the Dems was merit pay for teachers.

"Here, uh, Iran. Not Iran. Uh, uh, Spain. Norway. Finland. These countries, they're not the superpower of the world, but they pay for their children from childhood to PhD levels.

"Why can't Americans put education as the top priority? And you can't do it when you want to expand" -- he was gaining steam now -- "as he wants to expand 100,000 more troops. Who are we going to nuke, who are we going to fight next?"

As Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pantomimed which one, between them, Gravel was singling out, the audience at Drake University burst into gales of laughter.

Gravel was smiling too. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll flashed at the beginning of the debate, Gravel was shown polling at a naked 0% in Iowa.

(On the other hand, that is only a percentage point behind Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd and two points behind Biden and Dennis Kucinich.)

Thus Gravel, while veritably off the grid, is taking away valuable 30-second nuggets of promise-making time from well-heeled front-runners Sen. Barack Obama (the poll leader at 27% in Iowa) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards (tied at 26%).

Is it time for Gravel to step aside? The one he hurts the most up there is probably Kucinich, who would otherwise occupy the unapologetically left-of-all-of-you role.

To the rest of them, Gravel is either a nuisance or an enviably plain speaker with nothing to lose. Gravel -- a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War who, according to the bio on his website, read 4,100 pages of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers into the official Senate record -- is easily the most theatrical, decrying the misbegotten involvement in Iraq or the misbegotten war on drugs or the misbegotten coziness between his opponents and their campaign war chests.

All family sitcoms need the wacky neighbor, the kooky elder. In that context, Gravel makes the Dems seem a more inclusive, extended brood.

Perhaps the analogy is less "My Three Son" than "Little Miss Sunshine," with Gravel as Alan Arkin's freethinking Grandpa, sitting in the back seat of a VW bus taking a little girl to a popularity contest.

Stop and think.

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