EVERY DOG HAS HIS DAY

By last week, Denver's four mayoral candidates could finish each other's sentences. This wasn't because they were in such great accord--far from it, in fact: Consensus is not a word you'd use in connection with this campaign. Crotchety, maybe, even cantankerous on a particularly good day when the venomous juices were flowing. It was simply that, after 32 or 33 or who knows how many joint appearances, they had one another's spiels down pat. They knew exactly how their fellow candidates would respond to certain jabs and gibes.

What they didn't know, what they still don't know, is how the voters of Denver will respond.

That Mayor Wellington Webb--who, in many ways, did Denver a favor by waiting until early last month to declare, thus saving us from still more set speeches--probably faces a runoff should not come as a revelation to those who follow Denver voters. Because if there's one thing all the consultants and pollsters and political pundits should be able to agree on, it's that Denver's voters are unpredictable.

Their unpredictability is sometimes the only predictable in a race. Denver voters like to be contrary. They like to defy the polls. And they like to champion an underdog--no matter how mangy that mutt might appear.

It's particularly helpful if the frontrunner suddenly comes up lame, as former district attorney Norm Early did four years ago when he suddenly started ignoring the expertise of his million-dollar handlers in favor of the advice of campaign--and Colorado--neophyte Yaphet Kotto. The actor may be great in Homicide, but his candidate got killed at the polls. Underdog Wellington Webb literally won the race on a walk, overtaking second-time candidate Don Bain and then passing Early when he was at a standstill, apparently struck dumb by the realization that maybe he didn't want to be mayor after all.

In 1987 incumbent Federico Pena was the unlikely underdog, kicked around by an economy so gloomy that challenger Bain looked perky by comparison. The two dailies even endorsed Bain, a congruence shocking enough to help shake Denver voters out of their doldrums. Predictably, they did the unpredictable and Pena squeaked through. But then, Pena had experience running as an underdog. He'd done it before, back in 1983, when the former northwest Denver legislator came up through a crowded field of candidates--including Webb, then a state bureaucrat--to oust not just longtime incumbent Bill McNichols (actually, a few well-timed snowstorms, including one election day, helped do Mayor Bill in) but perennial also-ran and favorite Dale Tooley, then Denver's district attorney.

Last summer, when luggage--and Denver itself--was being shredded on national news shows and it seemed that DIA would never open, the challengers started lining up to go after Webb. John Frew joining the fray came as something of a surprise; after all, as the architect of both Adams and Denver counties' successful airport votes, he carried plenty of baggage himself. That Frew, a veteran campaigner, would run and then never register more than a blip on the polls came as a bigger surprise--particularly to him. Frew blames some of his position (or lack thereof) on an unexpected paucity of support from the business community. His poor showing in the polls, however, has made for a great show at the debates: Frew's the fastest and friskiest of the candidates, his Howdy Doody face showing great glee when he catches another contender in a slip. He's not going to win, but it's been fun while he lasted.

Bob Crider, too, looks surprised that his shot at becoming mayor has gone astray. The auditor's office, previously occupied by Webb, makes a perfect launching pad for a mayoral campaign. In fact, it should probably be written into the Denver City Charter that the auditor is required to run for mayor--what better way to make sure the auditor keeps an eagle eye on the administration? But being a diligent watchdog hasn't translated into Crider's being a credible underdog, and his campaign has not caught fire, either. Cynics point to one reason for this: Crider is an older white guy.

And in many ways, they're right about what's wrong with their candidate (even if their count is off). You didn't need Jimmy the Greek to figure that a woman--preferably a smart, savvy woman with the sort of managerial experience that Webb boasted about four years ago--would have the best chance of beating the incumbent. Would have the best chance of making sure that Webb, fresh from finally getting that airport open, wouldn't be able to benefit from Denver's puppy love for an underdog--though his campaign has certainly tried to take that tack, particularly in light of both dailies endorsing Mary DeGroot. Twelve years ago Denver voted for a Hispanic mayor (although one who makes Frew look exotic); four years ago they went for a black mayor (although, in the sort of color-blind lineup that Denver likes to boast about, both runoff candidates were black); now many voters think--but don't say it out loud--that it's a woman's turn. This is a town that has no trouble taking women seriously--even if the pollsters did in their early surveys.

That DeGroot turned out to be a tough campaigner helped, of course. Her position papers have done as much as anything to set the tone of the campaign and keep the faxes and rejoinders coming from the other candidates. During Sunday night's televised debate, Webb denied there'd been any cronyism in his administration; DeGroot has a 64-point position paper that does an impressive job of refuting that. But Webb himself is no slouch at campaigning, and when he attacked DeGroot for failing to get bills through city council during her eight-year tenure, her demeanor recalled nothing so much as the sanctimonious student-council secretary whose plans for the pep rally had gone awry.

Barring snowstorms and airport closings, it's easy to predict that DeGroot and Webb will emerge from next Tuesday's election in a runoff.

After that, though, all bets are off.

 
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