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Democratic candidate Gravel jaded about political present

Depending on who you talk to, Mike Gravel is too old-school for political relevance or a straight-talking breath of fresh air.

The former Democratic Alaskan senator offered students in the Marshall Center Ballroom enough colorful rhetoric to form their own judgments and possibly boost his third-from-last position in the polls.

“All you young men owe me because you aren’t getting drafted,” Gravel said in reference to his five-month senate filibuster against draft legislation. “I saved you about two years without getting your butts shot off.”

Gravel, 77, arrived without the plan for a formal speech. Instead, he stood without podium or microphone in the sparsely filled ballroom and spoke on the issues which now drive his campaign.

“When I left office I was disgusted. Representative government, I feel, is broken,” Gravel said.

“Why I am specifically running is to empower you,” Gravel said. “I have come to the conclusion in my experience that there is no way that representative government can correct itself and the problems with governance in the 21st century.”

It is impossible for representative government to directly address public interest, Gravel said. The people need to be empowered as lawmakers, so they can then identify the correct interests and make a majority decision, without waiting for the will of politicians.

“Sixty million Americans need to vote for the initiative, and it becomes the law of the land,” Gravel said. “The people will become the fourth check in the system of checks and balances.”

Ten years after he left office, Gravel said he started coming back to life as a theorist, and turned his attention to writing Citizen Power, published in 1977. He is working on a second edition.

“I wrote this thing 36 years ago,” Gravel said. “All the problems that I wrote about are worse today, they haven’t improved. And I was an optimist.”

Turning his focus to the Iraq war, Gravel made a promise to the nation.

“If I become president, let me tell you this war is done,” he said. “We will be out in 120 days.”

The U.S. invaded Iraq without reason, other than its lust for oil control, Gravel said. That’s why the Democratic-controlled Congress does not want to get out and why the front candidates, when questioned by Tim Russert of Meet the Press, said they couldn’t make the commitment to be out of Iraq by 2013, Gravel said.

“If I become president we will be out by the spring of 2009,” Gravel said.

Closing on that point, Gravel began answering questions from students, which varied from the legality of the war to his plans for a national fair tax.

The fair tax would end income tax and enact a national sales tax, turning the U.S. from a consumer nation to a saving nation, Gravel said.

After one student asked Gravel’s thoughts on why people should vote for a candidate trailing badly in the polls rather than a more electable one, Gravel responded with candor and exasperation.

“If you are telling me that you think I am better for the country than Hillary, but you think she is more electable, you know what’s wrong with you?” Gravel said. “You’re interested with power over substance. Come on, grow up.”

“I have feet of clay like everybody else,” he said. “I’ve been there, I know how it works. But you know what I’ve got, I’m not afraid.”

Natalie Gagliordi can be reached at at (813) 974-6299.