April 28th, 2007 by alex
By Joe Lauria, Globe Correspondent | April 28, 2007
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Until the first Democratic presidential debate here on Thursday night, former senator Mike Gravel campaigned in almost total obscurity since becoming the first Democrat to declare more than a year ago, in April 2006.
But all that changed with a few provocative remarks from the stage of South Carolina State University with his seven better-known rivals looking on.
He said the early leading Democratic candidates “frightened” him because they had taken nothing off the table, including nuclear weapons, for possible military action against Iran.
“Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?” he asked Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
“I’m not planning on nuking anybody right now, Mike,” Obama replied.
“Good, then we’re safe for a while,” Gravel said.
He accused candidate Joseph Biden Jr., the Delaware senator, of having “a certain arrogance” in dictating to Iraqis how to run their country.
Biden hit back, saying Gravel was living in “happy land.”
Yesterday, Gravel said his debate appearance gave a public that does not know him or his record “a taste of the kind of leadership I can provide.” He spoke by telephone from San Diego, where he flew immediately after the debate to address the California Democratic Convention yesterday.
“What will make a difference in this campaign is not money, it’s not celebrity, it is a person who is prepared to tell the American people the truth,” he said. “The people are fed up and as president I will do a 180 and move this country in the opposite direction.”
A native of Springfield, Mass., Gravel served two terms in the Senate, representing Alaska from 1969 to 1981 . He made his mark as a fierce Vietnam war critic who staged a one-man filibuster that led to the end of the military draft. He drafted legislation to end funding for the war and released the Pentagon Papers, which detailed government deception over Vietnam, at the end of June 1971.
The Nixon administration decided not to prosecute Gravel for having Beacon Press in Boston publish the papers, though the US Supreme Court ruled that Gravel could release them only inside the Capitol, based on the Constitution’s speech and debate clause.
Gravel today is a fierce critic of the Iraq war and government secrecy.
“This war was lost the day that George Bush invaded Iraq on a fraudulent basis,” he said in the debate. Believing that Congress has the power to both declare and end wars, he called for a law to end the war.
“He’s the one to say not only that the emperor has no clothes, but that the emperor wannabes have no clothes,” said national pollster John Zogby, adding, “There is an angry voter. I don’t know how that will take shape, it’s way too early. But you got a sense why Mike Gravel is in the race on Thursday and that he is in the race.”
The reaction to Gravel’s performance has overwhelmed his campaign. His aides said they got more requests for interviews yesterday than in the first 12 months of the campaign.
Gravel’s website could not handle the flood of hits after the debate, they said. Bloggers complained that they were ready to donate money but were unable to get into the website .
“He started out with less money than the cost of a John Edwards haircut,” said Elliott Jacobson, Gravel’s national finance director.
Gravel told reporters after the debate: “We stayed in a $55 motel. I’ll hitchhike to the next debate if I have to.”
Earlier this month, Gravel returned home to Arlington, Va., from a campaign appearance in New York on a $25 ticket on Van Moose bus lines. He had spoken at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network candidates’ forum, sharing the stage with Senator Hillary Clinton and Obama — both of whom have already raised more than $20 million each.
Gravel said he decided to run for president because of his anger over Iraq. Friends urged him to use the campaign to also push two policy goals: direct democracy and a revamped federal tax code.
Gravel advocates a constitutional amendment and a federal statute establishing legislative procedures for citizens to make laws through ballot initiatives .
He also supports the Fair Tax, which would eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and corporate and individual income taxes, replacing them with a 23 percent national sales tax on all new goods and services. Each month, taxpayers would receive a check to offset the tax on basic items such as food and medicine.
“People are talking about him,” Zogby said. “And they are going to hear from him over the next few months as long as he’s got money for a bus ticket.”