Gravel Goes Nuclear at First Democratic Debate

He's a former Democratic senator from a so-called red state making a bid for the White House on a left-of-center agenda. John Edwards? No, try again.

He's the oldest candidate in the 2008 field and fond of the moniker "maverick." Ah, it must be McCain. Nope. One more clue:

He's been an anti-war critic from the beginning, fueling his upstart campaign by speaking the language of power to the people. Obama? Sorry, wrong again.

He's Alaska's former two-term Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel (that's Grah-vel), 76 years old and longtime critic of Vietnam and now the Iraq War, and he's running for president.

And Thursday night at the first debate of the 2008 campaign season, Gravel hit a combative note in the Democratic field against his better-known presidential rivals.

Referencing Gravel's lesser-known status in the candidate pool, moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked him frankly, "Why are you here tonight?"

Referring to the candidate pool sharing the stage -- including front-runners New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- Gravel said, "Some of these people frighten me! They frighten me!"

Going Nuclear

And with that, the senior statesman from Alaska went nuclear.

"When you have mainline candidates that turn around and say that there's nothing off the table with respect to Iran, that's code for using nukes, nuclear devices," he said. "[When] I'm president of the United States, there will be no preemptive wars with nuclear devices. To my mind, it's immoral, and it's been immoral for the last 50 years as part of American foreign policy."

Gravel wasn't shy about calling out contenders by name, either.

Gravel also looped Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, into his criticism of the top-tier contenders.

"Joe, I'll include you," said Gravel, while criticizing the Delaware Democrat for pushing a plan to decentralize power in Iraq along ethnoreligious lines. "You have a certain arrogance. You want to -- you want to tell the Iraqis how to run their country."

'Common Man,' Uncommon Candidate

It's no secret that Gravel isn't widely known or recognized by voters across the nation.

In a densely populated field, there's only so much media spotlight to go around, a point Gravel alluded to during the debate.

"I was beginning to feel like a potted plant over here," Gravel said.

The first time this reporter met the former senator, he drove up in a Hyundai rental car to his favorite New Hampshire restaurant, smiled and stood by a sign that read, "The Common Man."

It wasn't a campaign stop. Gravel had forgotten his wallet while having dinner at the restaurant the night before -- a common problem, indeed.

After 76 years, Gravel has a resume that looks like other 2008 candidates with a few extracurriculars that distinguish him from the typical politician. Gravel has served as a Democratic senator of Alaska, an intelligence officer in of the U.S. Army and a clerk on Wall Street, and paid his way through college at Columbia University by driving a taxicab in New York City.

As senator, Gravel waged a lone five-month filibuster that forced the expiration of the military draft in the 1970s, and he later released the Pentagon Papers, facilitating their publication during the Nixon administration.

Gravel was the first Democratic presidential candidate to announce in April 2006, yet he remains widely unknown.

Trailblazing Taxi Driver

Assigned by ABC News to cover Gravel's campaign, I joined the senator on a ride to Havenwood Retirement Center in New Hampshire.

It was a quick ride with everything that is to be expected from a former New York City taxi driver, even a few U-turns.

Gravel explained his budget was tight, so he often traveled alone to his presidential events, leaving his mostly volunteer staff home in the Washington, D.C., area.

The staff helps with planning events, and Gravel said, "It's a little more challenging running for president without a staffer in New Hampshire."

However, Gravel is confident he can win the bid for presidency with 15 full-time staffers and just $10 million for traveling and salary for his staff. Right now, he's got $498 in the bank.

"No matter how the polls go, up or down, I will only need 15 people on my staff. I'll never need more than 15," Gravel said.

Arriving at the retirement center, Gravel asked the receptionist for his contact person. The receptionist bluntly returned, "Who are you?"

Gravel told her his name, and she immediately nodded her head and asked thoughtfully, "Oh, aren't you running for something?"

"Yes, I'm running for president," Gravel responded with a smile and a wave.

The woman smiled, shrugged and directed him to Havenwood's other retirement community a few miles down the road. Gravel asked the receptionist whether she could pass along the message that he was running late, but the receptionist made no guarantees.

This is New Hampshire, home to the nation's first primary, and presidential candidates, especially around this time of year, are about as common a sight as the trees.

After arriving at the second Havenwood Retirement Center, Gravel was greeted and shown to a small room filled with 25 people. As he walked toward the podium, one woman whispered to another, "Is that him?"

"I think that's him," she returned, "He looks senatorial."

The Personal Pitch

Gravel spoke for over an hour at the retirement home answering questions about his age, the war and health care.

He related with the audience, telling them he receives his medicine from the VA and Medicare each month. Yet despite that experience, Gravel believes Medicare and Medicaid should be phased out over time because of the economic debt the country faces as baby boomers age.

Gravel also explained to the crowd that he has suffered through bankruptcy because of the U.S. health care system.

"I know what it's like to spend most of your paycheck on your medicine. I got hit with bankruptcy as a result of that," Gravel said.

One man questioned Gravel about his age, noting that, if he wins, he would turn 80 years old during his presidency. Gravel insisted he is "fit" for his age, and many great leaders, including Winston Churchill, have served well into their 80s.

Gravel believes strongly in ending the war in Iraq, telling the crowd, "I don't believe a drop of oil is worth another American life."

He compared this war to Vietnam and told the crowd that he would put an immediate end to the fighting abroad.

Of his little known status, Gravel told the crowd he has hope: "My voice is going to increase. I'm 3 percent in the polls right now and the more people hear me, the more things are going to change."

A rental car, an audience and ideas -- that's all the long-shot candidate claims to need to win the White House. Now if he could only remember where he left that wallet.

ABC News' Nitya Venkataraman and Teddy Davis contributed to this report.

Comments