In Minn., Ms. Plain Vanilla battles Mr. Heavenly Hash



COON RAPIDS, Minn. -- If ability to look great on television is the ticket to political victory these days, Democratic senatorial candidate Ann Wynia might as well fold up her campaign and go back to being a college teacher.

Wynia is a small woman of a certain age who looks and sounds like the kindly lady next door. Next to her Republican opponent, Rep. Rod Grams, a tall and handsome former television news anchorman, she is plain vanilla next to Heavenly Hash.

"I'm not the flashiest candidate," she concedes. "My reputation derives from getting things done." And then she smiles and adds, referring to her opponent, "I wish my hair looked half as good as his."

Even Wynia's campaign manager, Beth Bernard, acknowledges that she is not working for the basic television candidate of the '90s. "Ann is a boring candidate," she says without apology. But what Wynia lacks in telegenic appeal, she says, she makes up in an ability to work with others, demonstrated as a former state House majority leader -- a quality that appears to be in short supply these days in the Senate.

All this is not to suggest that Grams is just another pretty face. After only one term in the House of Representatives, he is reaching for the Senate with a talent of his own -- an ability to run a disciplined campaign hammering single-mindedly on the conservative issues he and his strategists believe will win for him Tuesday -- no new taxes and an unblinking toughness on crime.

The latter posture does not prevent Grams, however, from defending his vote against the crime bill passed by Congress this year because it included a ban on some semiautomatic assault weapons. Minnesota is a hunting state, especially in the traditionally Democratic Iron Range in the north, and Grams quotes a favorite saying there: "My dog, OK; my wife, maybe; my gun, never."

Democrats up there, he tells a small group of pulp and paper industry executives, "might not bring themselves to vote for me, but they can't vote for her." Wynia needs strong support in the Iron Range in part because ticket mate John Marty, the Democratic candidate challenging Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, is seen to be running such a poor race that Democratic turnout may fall sharply off.

Wynia says her own organization, bolstered by financial and volunteer help from national and local women's groups who see her as the best bet to put another woman in the Senate, will take up the slack. Meanwhile, she is counting on straight talk, without pizazz, to win in a state that she says "has tended to reject all the slick and easy answers."

As a former state legislative leader, Wynia told the Coon Rapids Kiwanis Club the other day, "Yes, sometimes we had to raise taxes" to balance the state budget and still meet the state's needs. Grams, picking up on that, says Wynia "voted 300 times to raise taxes, an average of once a week" over the 13 years she served in the state legislature.

In one sense, this contest is between an old-fashioned campaigner and a television-era smoothie. In another, however, it is more of the negative swapping of accusations that has marked the 1994 campaign around the country. Wynia's campaign is running ads on Grams' failure to pay property taxes and several liens against him for non-payment of bills from subcontractors in a home-building venture. His campaign responded by noting she was late with tax payments twice in years past.

Of this controversy, Wynia says: "Minnesotans understand there's a big difference being judged tax delinquent, people filing tax liens and suits against you, and someone who twice in 25 years let a tax payment slip and paid right away with no penalty."

President Clinton has been here for Wynia, and Grams tries to hang him around her neck, calling him "probably the most liberal president ever." But Wynia says the Clinton visit was a plus, because "Minnesotans have not bought into many of the false promises of the Reagan era" and understand Clinton inherited tough problems "and has tackled them."

Wynia started out ahead but slipped as Grams pounded on the tax and crime issues as she maintained her low-key style. The most recent Minnesota Poll had Grams ahead, 42 percent to 35, but Wynia is counting on her non-bombastic approach to win out with Minnesotans who, she insists, prefer their politics without the glitz.

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