SCOTT COUNTY, Tennessee doesn't lay much claim to attracting attention: The Appalachian ridge area last received publicity when it declared war against Hitler before Pearl Harbor. But Scott County has yet another headline on the way. From the heart of the fundamentalist coal-mining community comes the Republican Party's highest elected official and newest presidential contender--Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. After twelve years on the Senate sidelines, watching party colleagues like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford carry the ball and fumble, and three vice-presidential nominations, the 54-year-old Senate minority leader now thinks it's time to try for the big one.
Baker wanted to start big so he waited for the "debate of the century" over the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). Early last summer he threatened strong opposition to the treaty unless President Carter and the Russians agreed to major changes. Unfortunately for Baker, the public does not seem to care as much about SALT II as Baker and his Democratic counterpart, Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (W. Va.). Baker's amendments, which had the potential to kill SALT II, met defeat by a one-vote margin in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday, and Capitol Hill colleagues have no idea how the skillful politician plans to use the issue for further gain.
But then, Baker is a sharpie. Of all the members of the Senate Watergate investigation, he is one of the few who was able to turn the hearings to his advantage. Letters poured into the senator's office encouraging him to run for president. The dimpled photogenic Baker, who exchanged backwoods lawyer logic and Southern wit with the parade of Nixon appointees and committee chairman Sam Ervin, gained a following that he has not yet lost.
In contrast to his opposition to SALT II, Baker stunned the congressional Republicans last year by supporting ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, which gave the Panamanian government control of the waterway. Despite rumors he had unforgivably deserted the party line to save a Democratic president, Baker easily won re-election to a third term in the Senate.
He has cultivated the image of a politician above petty party politics. "He knew that it could just put him under, but he sacrificed his political popularity to do something for the country and you don't find that in politicians often," says Cissy Baker, the senator's daughter and one of his most avid supporters. His pro-treaty position, however, was less politically risky than his daughter would have one believe.
To the voters on his district, canals are not a such a big deal.
"I don't think people here are involved. When you get out of Washington there's a whole lot of things that don't seem to matter. But folks appreciate what he's doing," says Oneida businessman and longtime friend W. H. Swain.
TO UNDERSTAND BAKER's free reign on national issues one has to go back to Scott County. The only thing that divides the northwestern county, which borders on the edge of Kentucky, is the Cumberland mountains and the southern Appalachians. It has no political machines to run amok during elections, although the Republican label and the last name 'Baker' carry plenty of support. The schoolchildren, mostly sons and daughters of coal miners and farmers, attend lily white public schools and eat free lunches. Bussing has never mattered because Scott County has not had a single black resident for at least the last seven years. On Saturday afternoons the pick-up trucks drive into town with rifles and shotguns in the gun racks. And on Sunday, families attend church in this predominantly Presbyterian community. No one seems to hate anybody else.
"That there Baker's a real high-class boy. I just wish he was a Democrat," Tarbue Lewis, a district manager for the Democratic state party headquarters in Nashville said. The Democrats have good reason for wanting Baker on their side. The last senate election saw him defeat the first female contender by more than 200,000 votes.
Baker's popularity did not just grow from the toothy grin and Southern twang he carries in his political make-up bag. He inherited the power to attract followers from his father, who served six terms in Congress and his mother, who took the seat for awhile after the elder Baker's death. And when Howard Baker decided to get married he selected Joy Dirksen, a blonde midwesterner and daughter of the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Besides his political connections, Baker is a Republican, and eastern Tennessee is almost all Republican. And Presbyterian--just like Baker.
Although the report from Scott County looks strong, Baker will need more than one county to get to the White House. To lure female support, Baker supports the Equal Rights Amendment, though his record shows that he did not vote in favor of a time extension for its ratification.
TO PUSH HIS IDEAS into place, Baker's Tennessee forces have been loading up the buses and making a base for their candidate in New Hampshire. The Tennessean is a firm believer in campaigning, although his daughter adds, "we don't expect to win in New Hampshire, but I think we're about where we want to be."
At the Hyannis, Mass. Sheraton last Saturday, over 300 Republican activists took part in a little-known party caucus and Rep. Phillip M. Crane (R-Ill.) came out on top with 164 votes. The nearest challenger Ronald Reagan received 36 while George Bush took 27, John Connally 24 and Baker 16. Anne Crickshank, a state Republican committee member said Crane's appearance at the Hyannis caucus "definitely helped" him gain the overwhelming majority. Baker, unannounced at the time, did not attend the day-long event.
Baker's late start, however is more a measure of his strength than of his weakness, his supporters say. "They've all been campaigning for a year now and Dad has had a job. Sure he's got a late start but he's in tune with Congress everyday," she added. And indeed his extensive Washington experience could well be a strong asset in 1980 after the failures of outsider Jimmy Carter. Baker will have a tough time in the midwest and the west considering the host of Republican contenders from that area such as Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill), Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan) and Crane. However, the regional competition doesn't worry Baker yet. "He has a broad-based appeal, even with Democrats," says Cissy Baker adding, "because he knows that's the only way he can win.
BAKER HOPES TO BUILD that support with his move to amend SALT II and has some Congressional leaders reconsidering a decision to open the SALT debate to the television cameras. The extra-exposure could put Baker right back or the centerstage of 1974, with millions of Americans watching--which is just where he wants to be.