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They're last but not least

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Ron Paul and Mike Gravel barely nudge the polls, but like their sneakers, their White House bids are notable.

July 25, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Portland, Ore. — ONE is a Democrat, the other a Republican. They've never met but share much in common: Both wear dark suits and sneakers, for one. Neither has a lot of money. Both are running for president.

Mike Gravel and Ron Paul. Mike and Ron. Their names, sharing space at the bottom of the polls, seem increasingly linked. Each came out swinging in the debates and scored points for candor and quirkiness and, in Gravel's case, crankiness.

The oldest of the declared candidates, Gravel, 77, and Paul, 71, have become the campaign's upstarts. They've helped draw an audience that might otherwise not have tuned in to the earliest-starting primary season in U.S. history.

After the first debate, Gravel generated more Internet traffic than any other Democratic contender except Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Through much of June and early July, "Ron Paul" was among the top three most frequently searched terms on the Web. Paul's YouTube videos were viewed 2.3 million times.

So who are these guys? Can two old men in rubber shoes win their parties' nomination to be leader of the free world?

*

Mike Gravel, former senator from Alaska, has just flown in to Portland on a red-eye from Indianapolis.

He rode economy in a middle seat in row 25, landed in the City of Roses after 2 a.m., grabbed some sleep and strolled into the hotel restaurant just past 11 a.m. -- the cutoff time for breakfast.

"Would there be any chance you could manage one more breakfast?" Gravel asks the gum-chewing hostess. "I'm sorry ... " she begins. Then someone from behind whispers to her that this man is running for president. He's important.

The hostess looks the candidate over.

Gravel smiles at her like a man to a favorite grandchild. Was this the same person whom commentators, after the first debate, called cantankerous?

He wears the obligatory uniform of male presidential hopefuls, dark suit and tie, and looks top to bottom like a decent enough fellow, with his thinning white hair and rimless spectacles. The hostess glances at his shoes: black strap-on Velcro walkers.

She sighs. "This way," she says.

He orders eggs, hash browns and toast with honey. He talks about his flight. "My feet were hurting so bad I couldn't sleep," he says. His voice, coincidentally, sounds gravelly. Gravel (pronounced gruh-VELL, as in his old campaign slogan, "Give Hell, Gravel!") suffers from neuropathy and chronic back pain, so traveling can be agony. Meditation helps him. In-flight movies too.

At one point during the meal, a supporter, Deborah Petri, 38, who has driven down from Tacoma, Wash., to meet him, approaches to shake his hand. "You're my hero," Petri tells the candidate. "I love you."

She, like many other supporters, loves him despite his deficits -- or perhaps because of them. His numbers in most national polls remain below 1%. Broke, jobless and politically marginalized, Gravel can't help but relate to the struggling masses. He's one of them.

His story in sum: former Army counter-intelligence officer; married to second wife, education consultant Whitney Stewart Gravel; father of two grown children; twice bankrupt; U.S. senator from Alaska starting in 1969; gained a national reputation as a maverick lawmaker willing to go against his own party; best-known for his theatrical opposition to the Vietnam War.

In 1971, Gravel read aloud passages of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government report describing U.S. military decision-making in Vietnam, entering 4,000 pages of the 7,000-page report into the Congressional Record. The report fueled the movement that eventually forced the end of the war.

But after a dozen years in the Senate, Gravel lost his seat in 1981 and disappeared from public life -- until April 2006, when he became the first Democrat to declare his run at the presidency.

Gravel had become angry over the government's inaction on the Iraq war, which he considers immoral. He also wanted to bring attention to a project he had worked on privately for more than a decade: the concept of governing by "national referenda." His idea, which he calls "the National Initiative," is to turn the American people into one giant legislative body.

The people, once and for all, would decide on the most pressing issues, from illegal immigration and healthcare to the war in Iraq and the war on drugs; he considers both wars disastrous.

At his age, it was now or never "to accomplish something, more than what I've already done, before I die," he says between bites of toast. "Our chances of winning are remote. But you never know. Lighting could strike."

Jimmy Carter, Michael S. Dukakis and Bill Clinton were relative unknowns when they entered the races for the 1976, 1988 and 1992 Democratic nominations. Carter and Clinton went all the way, of course.

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