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A RUN FOR HIS MONEY

At eight in the morning, Governor Roy Romer already looked tired. After a month of putting out fires--both literally and metaphorically--he was now glad-handing his way through the train heading from Denver to Cheyenne. And by car twelve, the campaigning was beginning to wear thin.

It's a tough year, the governor mused. The voters are restless. It's a tough year in Colorado, and it's a tough year for incumbents everywhere. "I'm not as cocky as I used to be," he said. "If I ever were."

A dozen cars, a thousand hands and two hours later, Romer--on foot, alone, unheralded by a twirling color guard or mounted calvary, marched along in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Parade. He received a smattering of applause--just slightly more than greeted the equally unrecognizable James Drury, the old Virginian star, who at least had the good sense to ride a horse.

Three days later, campaigner Romer was back in the saddle again. Last Tuesday marked the debut of his first television ad. During the 1990 campaign, Romer didn't start running TV ads until weeks later, but then, in 1990 Romer was running against John Andrews, the low-key, low-profile think-tanking conservative who'd once studied the evil effects of sprouts in salad bars. This time, he's up against millionaire oilman Bruce Benson, who'd already mugged the incumbent in an expensive series of commercials, the most recent of which slapped the governor for his failure to slow crime. (To add insult to injury, the ad showed Romer looking uneasy in a suit, compared to the avuncular, sweatered Benson.) But Romer was back in fighting form--and bomber jacket--in his thirty-second response, which made it clear he wasn't soft on crime. After all, the deadly serious announcer intoned, "Roy Romer took on liberals in his own party to strengthen the death penalty." The subtext was that Romer wouldn't be soft on Bruce Benson, either.

And there's plenty of text that proves that, too. In carefully highlighted and footnoted pages, Romer's handlers point out where Benson has falsified or distorted the governor's record and where he's copying Romer's own plans for welfare reform, for crime prevention. Strategist Mike Stratton isn't preparing these handy study guides just for the media; four months ago, he sent one to Benson, too. "I hope the enclosed information will be helpful since you already are using the packaging," Stratton wrote Benson on April 11, just days after the Republican had snubbed the local caucuses. "In fact, having it in hand rather than continuing to borrow it may save you some money, if that is a concern."

Money is clearly a concern here--but it isn't Benson who's worried about his wallet.

Less than a year ago, Mike Bird ruled the roost of the Republican challengers. Since then, he's been outspent ten times by Benson; by last Tuesday, the longtime Colorado Springs legislator and economics professor was threatening to punch Benson in the nose during a radio debate. (Caught in the middle of that dust-up was the only other surviving Republican candidate, tireless campaigner Dick Sargent, he of the military metaphors and the promise to "out-Romer Romer" on the campaign trail.) If Bird had made his threat earlier, no one would have blamed him: When Benson entered the race--paying to go the petition route rather than toe the traditional party line--he essentially grounded the Bird campaign. He might have been too chicken to debate his competitors, but the simple fact was that Benson didn't have to. He could take his case--or what passed for it--to the voters on television. And that could deliver the real knock-out punch.

Money changes everything. Benson has already poured $2 million into his campaign, with promises to go several million higher. And as his financial records--finally disclosed late last week--indicate, he can come up with the cash.

Benson hasn't lavished all of his money on himself. The Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics also released some financial figures last week, the result of a study of 1992 "soft money" donations--unregulated contributions made to state political parties and other groups. Benson, who just happened to then head the state Republican Party, ranked as one of the top five givers, right up there after the National Education Association and before the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the AFL-CIO and Philip Morris. Unlike the tobacco company, though, which hedged its bets by contributing to both parties, Benson's $465,000 went straight to Colorado Republicans--which could account for why, despite Benson's tradition-breaking entry into the race, Bird's goose was cooked from the start.

"Benson's donation comprised over one-third of the soft money raised by the Colorado Republican Committee," the center notes, "in fact, constituted the GOP's fund-raising advantage over their Democratic rivals." And although it was the third consecutive election cycle in which Benson had been the state's top contributor, his generosity in 1992 more than quadrupled his donations just two years earlier.

His investment paid off.
No matter how often his competitors cry foul, Benson is the favorite to win next week's primary. And if the electorate is as restless as Romer predicts, come November the state could have the best governor money can buy.

 
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