Life of the Party

Winning the Governor's Mansion could be a religious experience for the GOP.

You take your chances walking into a political rally with no stickers on your body. You feel like the first sailor off the boat stepping into a gaggle of prostitutes. Smiling people move toward you, seeking to press your flesh and slap names on your chest. Hands come out of nowhere to grab for your support.

The seductive side of politics emerges even in bland suburban settings. Late last month the Aurora Republican Forum rounded up the three remaining GOP candidates for governor--Bill Owens, Tom Norton and Terry Walker--for a debate. The spacious meeting room of the Aurora Association of Realtors was standing room only. Fully half the crowd appeared to be politicians themselves, running for local, state and congressional offices.

What a bunch of happy hookers.
For the first time in 24 years, the Republican Party has a real shot at capturing the Colorado Governor's Mansion. And the man in the best position to do so is Aurora's own Bill Owens, currently the state treasurer but for twelve years before that a legislator noted for his zeal to build prisons and fight crime. He's articulate and telegenic, he's raised the most money, he's the only GOP candidate who's won a statewide race, and he has support from several of the state's Republican congressmen.

In fact, he's in the midst of pulling off a miracle. Owens, a Catholic who opposes abortion and has enjoyed the blessings of the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, has strong support in the Republican religious-right wing, which controls much of the party machinery, including the state chairmanship. At the same time, though, he has convinced key moderate, pro-choice Republicans to come along for the ride--perhaps because the latter group is so eager to reclaim the Governor's Mansion.

"Some people are already picking out new curtains," jokes Bruce Holland, a moderate, pro-choice Republican who chairs the Denver County Republican Party. Holland will vote for Owens, though he says he will remain officially neutral during the process of picking a candidate.

Among other moderate Republicans, there are rumblings that Owens may be a Trojan horse for the religious right. The candidate strenuously denies it, saying he's trying to unite all factions of the party. And Holland says Owens has convinced many moderates, including him, that he's not going to surprise them.

"He may believe in his heart of hearts in that stuff," says Holland, "but as long as he acts mainstream and governs mainstream, he'll be all right. And I think he will. He wants to become governor. And he knows what he has to do."

That he does. Except for the expanding bags under his eyes, the 47-year-old native of Texas still looks like a Boy Scout or student council president--and he was both. But he's not just a good-looking mannequin. He's a smooth career politician who usually keeps his rigidly conservative feelings under control and, by all appearances, plots his own strategy. Unlike perpetually feverish religious-right conservatives such as legislator Barry Arrington, Owens will not fall on the sword of ideology. He keeps his balance and knows exactly where to position himself.

At the Aurora rally, when the three gubernatorial candidates walked to a table at the front of the room for the start of the debate, Owens sat right in the middle. He placed himself to the right of Senate president Tom Norton of Greeley and to the left of religious radical Terry Walker. He made a little joke about it to make sure the crowd noticed.

No one plays to an audience like Bill Owens.

In March 1995, Bill Owens sacrificed a beautiful Saturday morning to help train religious-right activists. He was a featured speaker at "Do It Right," a workshop conducted by Focus on the Family's local political-action arm, the Rocky Mountain Family Council. After a "Good morning, Jesus" invocation, Gary Barkalow, head of Focus's family-council branches, told the 175 Christians (and one undercover reporter): "You might not know that the RMFC is part of a larger movement." The Colorado Springs-based broadcasting empire, headed by James Dobson, had similar councils in 35 states, he said. And those councils were also busy training activists who were in politics to bring people to Christ.

Dave Shiflett, at the time the deputy editorial-page editor of the Rocky Mountain News, next gave tips on how to get more religious-right propaganda into newspapers. "Editors, journalists, like everyone else, want to do as little as possible," he said. Suck up to them, schmooze them, talk to them about crime. "Everyone's concerned about violence," Shiflett added. "Do remember to package it well, and don't be shy."

According to Shiflett, Denver journalists were easy to manipulate. "The media are like a bunch of birds on a wire," he said. "One flies off and all the rest will follow. I've found journalists in Denver are very easy to get along with. I don't think you have as big a hurdle to put up with as you would in Washington or New York."

RMFC chief Tom McMillen then introduced state treasurer Owens, "the architect of charter schools." Owens told the enthusiastic audience that most of his opposition came from the "religious left," asked the crowd to "send a contribution to the RMFC," praised Shiflett's editorial page as "a real jewel" and declared, "I'm so excited that people like you are getting involved."

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