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A hero's welcome for longtime conservative icon

NEW YORK -- He was the man everyone wanted to talk to.

Bearded conservative guru Grover Norquist was in the cattle market that is the Republican National Convention's Radio Row yesterday morning. Talk-show hosts, crammed together in the hall, nabbed him for interviews, urging him to expound on the necessity for radical tax reform, privatized Social Security, and an end to government intrusion.

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, was happy to oblige, delivering his message in calm tones and complete paragraphs, as spokesman for what he likes to call ''The Leave-Us-Alone Coalition."

As he wandered between radio interviews, he ran into many people he knew, and they congratulated the 47-year-old on his recent engagement. ''Is it safe, this marriage stuff?" he asked one talk-show host.

Politicians and other operatives -- including Ralph Reed, Southeast regional chairman of the Bush campaign, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and current Speaker J. Dennis Hastert -- wanted to talk about politics, and Norquist, who has a command of races all over the country, offered plenty of advice.

''We have you guys coming to the Wednesday meeting," Norquist told Interior Secretary Gale Norton. ''Anytime you want somebody to say something at the Wednesday meeting, let me know."

Norquist's Wednesday meeting has become Washington lore: The invitation-only event draws about 120 conservatives -- lobbyists, federal officials, politicians, and think-tankers -- to present ideas, push them up chains of command, and get their messages straight. The Washington meeting has spawned more than 40 smaller ones around the country, and the messages and the strategies are growing more coordinated all the way down the political food chain. And Norquist is enjoying what he says is his group's spot at the top of it.

''If something's happening in D.C. that hasn't come to the Wednesday meetings, it's being run by someone who doesn't know how to get things done, and it ain't going anywhere," Norquist said on a cab ride between convention events yesterday.

The meetings started as fringe affairs when they began in 1993. His fortunes rose when his friend Gingrich took over the House in 1994, and the Bush victory in 2000 catapulted him further. Now the meetings are President Bush's megaphone to the libertarian right of his party.

''When almost every good idea in D.C. comes to you sitting at the Wednesday meeting, it really allows you to stay like the spider at the center of the web," he said.

Norquist is prone to somewhat extreme characterizations of current affairs: last year, he told an NPR interviewer that arguing in favor of the estate tax on the grounds that it affects a relative few taxpayers was similar to ''the morality of the Holocaust," because he said the Nazis, too, had targeted a ''small percentage."

Yet those statements have done little to slow him down, and so it is that an unelected antitax, small-government crusader is offering a sitting Cabinet secretary his help if ever she really needs to get an idea or two off the ground.

Norquist said the president's endorsement of partial privatization of Social Security came after the issue was ''moved forward" at the meetings, which are sometimes attended by the president's chief political adviser, Karl Rove. The ''paycheck protection" legislation proposed in some states, which requires that unions tell employees how their dues are spent, also came up through the meetings.

But Norquist's signal achievement is the ''no new taxes" pledge, which he began in 1986, and which has since been signed by 270 members of the House, 42 senators, one sitting president, and a third of all Republican state legislators in the country.

The pledge, Norquist says, is the key to Republican electoral success.

The Weston, Mass., native said the idea came to him when he was 14, riding the bus home from high school.

Not everyone in the party has come around to Norquist's way of thinking, however. And under his rules, those rebels are in for a world of electoral pain, courtesy of Norquist's connections and organization.

''Every once in a while you have a bad Republican who votes wrong, like the rat head in the Coke bottle that interrupts your branding effort," he said. ''When that happens, we have to quarantine them, put them in leper colonies."

Few rats were in evidence at Radio Row yesterday, however. There, Norquist even found a Democrat who was on his side.

Talk show host Tammy Bruce described herself as a Democrat and a feminist, but she said she had come around to Norquist's views, because her own party had become overbearing.

Besides, the two shared a hobby that transcended party labels.

''Have we gotten you out to the D.C. range yet?" Norquist, a National Rifle Association board member, asked.

Bruce said that she hadn't, but that she was hoping to take her gun, named ''Snuffy," there soon.

''The NRA has a great range there," Norquist said with pleasure, making blazing finger-pistols with both hands.

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