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Party Crasher

Back from the abyss, Sam Zakhem campaigns for the forgotten man: himself

The three-way race will be decided March 22 by a vote of the Republican State Central Committee. Zakhem's base of support may be weaker than that of the patrician Bain or activist Curtis, but he can't be counted out. Despite operating out of a district in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans 4-1, he managed to win three terms in the state legislature in the 1970s and made a surprisingly strong showing statewide in the 1980 U.S. Senate primary race. In 1992, with news of his impending indictment spreading like influenza, he still managed to pull more than 20 percent of the party's support for Senate, coming in second to Terry Considine at the state convention.

In each race, Zakhem did what he always does: press the flesh. Work the crowds, no matter how small. Ignore the media (or absence of same). A tireless campaigner, this time around he's vowed to visit party loyalists in all 63 counties and to reach out to women, minorities and other constituents not commonly linked to the Republican white-bread image. The 61-year-old former ambassador is setting himself up as a man of the people, champion of the little guys, in contrast to Bain, an attorney with strong ties to the GOP elite.

"I bet there are lots who don't want to see Sam Zakhem as state chairman," says Zakhem, who, like Bob Dole and Deion Sanders, has a habit of referring to himself in the third person. "But the common people, the heart and soul of the Republican Party, are with Sam Zakhem. Believe me."

He smiles conspiratorially, as if about to reveal a great secret.
"It's more important to have popular support than to have a million bucks in your pocket," he says. "Nobody knows more than the people. That's why I wanted a trial by jury."

The rise and fall and rise of Sam Zakhem poses an awkward situation for GOP leaders. On the one hand, his is the kind of success story that warms conservative voters' hearts, the tale of a humble immigrant in relentless pursuit of the American dream. But he's also every party boss's worst nightmare, a blustering, unpredictable superpatriot who seems to get into more hot water than a busload of Bavarian tourists in Glenwood Springs.

Zakhem's early life reads like something out of a Horatio Alger story. Born in Lebanon, the youngest of eight in a well-to-do Eastern Catholic family, Zakhem first came to the United States as a young man, seeking a little postgraduate education before returning to his native land. He stayed on, much against his parents' wishes, and was cut off from the family fortune. Working nights ("I have to pick myself from the bootstraps and pull up," as he once put it), within a few years he had earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Colorado, shifted from liberal leanings to an archconservative view of the world, married a Baptist (Merilynn, a Denver native), gained his citizenship and launched a career in politics.

In 1972, distressed by the vigorous antiwar movement on the Boulder campus, he ran for the CU Board of Regents, finishing third in a field of seven. Two years later, in the midst of the post-Watergate apocalypse that swept Gary Hart, Dick Lamm and dozens of other Democrats into office, Zakhem amazed the pundits by winning a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives from traditionally Democratic southwest Denver. He stayed there for two terms--long enough to cut a wide swath to the state Senate.

Zakhem's eight years as a lawmaker earned him plenty of attention, usually for the wrong things. He was better known for his over-the-top antics than for his legislation: jamming a voting machine on "no," for example, while he slipped away to make a phone call; leaving a courtroom without permission while being screened for jury duty (because, he claimed, he had to answer the call of nature); raising funds by such gimmicks as single-handedly challenging teams of five or six women to a volleyball match (which Zakhem, an Olympic-caliber player, invariably won); engaging in a memorable shouting match on the Senate floor with majority leader Ralph Cole.

Along the way, Zakhem did manage to sponsor his share of bills, including pioneering efforts dealing with solar energy, aid to the elderly, and tougher penalties for drunk drivers and employers who hire illegal aliens. But it was his endless crusading on moral issues that attracted the most controversy.

Even by the standards of Colorado's conservative "House Crazies," Zakhem's proposals were a bit heavy-handed: A bill to cut off state-funded abortions (killed). A bill that would compel local schools to give creationism "equal time" with evolution (killed). A bill that would deny alimony payments to ex-spouses living with members of the opposite sex on a "continuing conjugal basis" (killed for several reasons, including the sponsor's inability to clarify what he meant by "conjugal").

His backers saw in Zakhem a deeply principled and committed man, a spokesman for the once-silent, increasingly "moral" majority. His detractors considered him a cornball, a buffoon, and worse.

"One of the least-respected and most unpopular lawmakers in the Colorado legislature," sniffed the Denver Post.

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