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Thu Apr 13 2006 11:15:08 ET

By Joe Lauria

NEW YORK -- Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, will next week become the first Democrat to formally declare his candidacy for president.

Nearly two years before the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential campaign, Gravel will announce his bid to become the Democratic White House hopeful at a news conference Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. He will file his papers today with the Federal Election Commission.

It is believed to be the earliest in a campaign season that anyone has ever filed to be a candidate for president.

?The thought of getting out there early, right now, is really the big tactic for me,? Gravel said in an interview. He vowed: ?Once I?m out there and people see the issues I?m raising, it will resonate with people.?

Gravel served in the Senate from 1969 to 1981, during the turbulent last years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. He is hoping voters respond to his anti-war stance, drawing on the parellels being made between Vientam and Iraq.

Gravel is perhaps best known for staging a one-man filibuster leading to the end of the military draft as well as for reading the Pentagon Papers into the record at a hastily arranged Senate committee hearing at the end of June 1971. A day after he did so the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the Justice Department?s prior restraint on the publication of the papers in the press.

Gravel later lost a Supreme Court decision in spring 1972 to allow publishing the classified documents in book form by Beacon Press in Boston. The Nixon administration chose not to prosecute him or Beacon and publication went forward. The court had ruled that Gravel had immunity from prosecution only within the confines of the Senate chambers.

The former senator said he decided to run for president about a year ago because of his anger over Iraq and after friends urged him to use the chance to push his two main policy goals: direct democracy and a revamped federal tax code.

Gravel advocates a constitutional amendment and federal statue establishing legislative procedures for citizens to make laws through ballot initiatives on most national and local issues.

?The American people are frustrated with the level of dysfunction of government,? Gravel said. ?And if you ask the American people, they want to be empowered. But people are giving their power away on Election Day to politicians.?

He supports the Fair Tax, which would eliminate the IRS and all corporate and individual income taxes, replacing them with a 23% national sales tax on new goods and services.

?What we need to do to safeguard our economy is to turn Americans into savers rather than consumers,? Gravel said. ?The United States, the biggest economy in the world, would become the biggest tax haven of the world,? he said, creating jobs and investment.

The Fair Tax Act of 2005, backed by 55 Republican Congressmen, has stalled in both houses. Critics say it is based on unreasonable assumptions about how easily it can finance government.

?Is it really possible to replace two trillion dollars of revenue on a sales tax? Wouldn?t the rate have to be excessively high?? asked Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute. ?That is a big question mark.?

Gravel says he is also motivated to run by his opposition to the Iraq war and by a desire to reverse the level of secrecy in government. He is particularly critical of Democrats who supported the invasion.

?They did not have good intelligence and they should have had the judgment to perceive this,? he said. ?When the administration puts a classification on a document, members of Congress stand there like frozen zombies.?

At 75, Gravel acknowledges that age will be made an issue in his campaign. ?Now when people talk about age, let?s really look at age,? he said. ?Nelson Mandela was in his mid-seventies when he became the head of South Africa, the chancellor who rebuilt Germany, Konrad Adenauer, was in his 80s and then my hero of all time, Pope John XXIII, who they put into power at 68, did more in four years than had been done in the Catholic Church for over 500 years.?

Gravel sees Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York as the clear Democratic frontrunner. ?She can be unseated if somebody would be aggressive,? he said. ?I?ll challenge her and any other candidate on the issues. The Democratic Party has to stand for something if it wants power.?

Pollster John Zogby, president of Zogby International, said Clinton will be vulnerable during the primaries, particularly over her support for the Iraq war and that a candidate like Gravel could have an impact.

?It is clear to me that there are those Democrats on the left who are not going to accept a candidate moving to the center, like Hillary,? he said. ?It suggests to me that a Mike Gravel should be taken pretty seriously: he is obviously experienced, obviously has those left wing roots that will matter to those on the left and ? in this kind of atmosphere it may not take a hell of a lot of votes to make a difference.?

Zogby said age would be a factor working against Gravel, however.

Gravel grew up in Springfield the son of French Canadian parents who had immigrated to western Massachusetts in the 1920s. After two years of college he became a counterintelligence officer in post-war West Germany from 1952 to 1954. He later graduated from Columbia University.

In 1957, he staked out to Alaska hoping for a political career in the soon-to-be new state. He lost three local elections before winning a seat in the state legislature and eventually his US Senate seat in 1969.

That year Gravel started opposition in the Senate to nuclear weapons testing on the Alaskan island of Amchitka, spurring a protest movement out of which Greenpeace was established.

Since leaving government in 1980 Gravel has been a real estate developer, consultant and founder and head of the Democracy Foundation, which promotes direct democracy.

Gravel acknowledges he?s an underdog but says the Democratic primary debates will allow voters to get to know him and his policies. He is setting up a national organization and plans to get on all 50 ballots.

?How fast it builds or when it crescendos I don?t know,? Gravel said. ?But I do know this: Having run with nothing and having gone to Alaska, and twelve years later finding myself sitting in the Senate, I think anything is possible.?

Joe Lauria is a freelance journalist who writes for the Boston Globe, the Sunday Times of London, Independent Newspapers of South Africa and other publications.

He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com

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