Dilemma in Colorado



DENVER -- In this era of big-bucks television campaigning that accentuates the negative, Democratic senatorial nominee Josie Heath faces a real dilemma in her underdog race against Republican Rep. Hank Brown.

She insists Colorado voters, beleaguered by the Silverado S&L scandal, are looking for someone "who is going to offer a different kind of politics -- somebody to hitch their star to again" as their champion, untied to special interests.

But, instead of making the case effectively that she is that someone, Heath has generated criticism from some quarters for going on the attack against Brown as a major recipient of campaign contributions from Coloradans under S&L investigation.

One Democratic political consultant, Jim Monaghan, notes that Heath, former chair of the Boulder County Commission, is not nearly as well-known statewide as is five-term House member Brown. And she has not yet established a positive image about herself, he suggests, from which to capitalize on the voter rejection of Brown she hopes to trigger.

"The first time you meet somebody, and they're hot under the collar, it creates a mixed impression of that person," Monaghan says. "Going back to what Josie Heath would do in the U.S. Senate is what she should do, and that would make people think better of her."

That advice used to be standard. But, because campaigns are so compressed these days in terms of the short time voters seem willing to listen, and because voters are guided so much by television advertising and news, a new conventional wisdom is developing: Go on the attack right away, and don't worry too much about saying what you'll do.

Heath's dilemma is that she says her special appeal is that she does not play the game as usual, yet she must find a way to overtake the better-known Brown, and soon, because she trails him, 50 percent to 30, in the latest Denver Post poll. And that means effective television ads.

The dilemma contributed to a debate within the Heath campaign resulting in the withdrawal of David Axelrod of Chicago, the media consultant who helped craft Heath's impressive 59 percent to 40 primary victory over Carlos Lucero in August. Ironically, Lucero pinned his hopes on strident attacks on Brown for S&L connections. Since then, Heath has been taking up the charge, if more responsibly, on the stump -- but not, as yet, on television.

Sue Casey, Heath's campaign manager, will say only that "strategic differences" with Axelrod led to his departure. But the signs are that her unwillingness to do hard-hitting television ads linking Brown to the S&L scandal were at the core, Casey insisting that Heath sell herself with the limited television money the campaign has.

Heath has called on Brown to return $604,000 he got from a fund-raiser last December organized by nine men with business ties to Silverado. Some 2,200 people paid from $250 to $1,000 to have lunch with President Bush, and the Brown campaign says they contributed the money, not the organizers. Brown has declined to return the funds.

Axelrod apparently wanted to air the allegations against Brown taking tainted money more aggressively. He has been replaced by Ray Strother, who has prepared the first of a series of ads presenting Heath as the different kind of politician she claims to be.

"We really felt strongly," Casey says, "that Josie was critical to the message. We got this far with her personally."

Casey has no illusions about the importance of television commercials between now and November. She plans to spend $500,000 in this period to remain on par with a Brown campaign that its manager, Dick Wadhums, says will have spent nearly $4 million by Election Day, to $1 million for Heath.

Brown, comfortably ahead in the polls, so far has run only one television ad mentioning Heath -- charging her with misrepresenting his record on children's aid programs. The ad also quotes a Denver newspaper editorial after the Heath-Lucero primary dubbing her "Madam Mud" -- although Lucero did most of the mud-slinging in that one.

The challenge for Heath is obvious: how to present herself as that different kind of candidate not tied to special interests and politics-as-usual, and at the same time effectively reveal Brown to be the captive of special interests she says he is, without resorting to the negative ads that seem to work best these days.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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