Mayberry, BFD

When pollsters start dialing the denizens of a small city, it's all Opie gone bad.

But the Mares campaign denies that its recent research involved negative questions about anyone other than Mares. "We were testing Don's message," says Cody Wertz, Mares's communications director, who knows negative campaigning when he hears it -- he worked for the Colorado Democratic Party in the November elections.

"They're two-thirds negative questions," Ciruli says of the current polls, "but that's not really push-polling."

Not yet. Right now it's just field research that "gives us the lay of the land for the race," says Kennedy. Or tests a candidate's message, as Wertz and Grossman insist. Those political hot-potato push polls, which push would-be voters away from one candidate and toward another, will come later.

If we're lucky. "This race is so damn boring," sighs Ciruli. "I wonder if any poll is going to tell the candidates to try passion."

To forget the pollsters and the political handlers, and take their best shot.

After all, even Barney Fife got one bullet.

Yip, Yip, Hooray

"I am the alpha wolf in a pack of poodles," state senator Ken Chlouber reportedly told his staff on Monday before heading back to the pound.

But that's no excuse for treating one of Colorado's most useful agencies like dog shit, grinding it under his cowboy-booted heel.

Once again, Republican Chlouber has suggested that the legislature abolish the Office of Consumer Counsel, a proposal approved by the Senate State Affairs Committee last Wednesday and now moving on to consideration by the full Senate.

The OCC, which represents consumer interests before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on matters related to telephone, electric and gas service, has never been particularly popular with more conservative elements in the state legislature. And this year, when wolves and poodles alike are taking big bites out of consumers' rights every chance they get, the OCC appears more vulnerable than ever -- even if its elimination wouldn't save the state a cent.

It would cost the state's consumers dearly, however. The budget for the OCC comes not from Colorado's general fund, but from the rates paid by consumers for their utilities. Rates that are considerably less today than they would be if the OCC did not exist.

"In the eighteen years we've been around," says OCC director Ken Reif, "we've returned $43 for every dollar the ratepayers spent."

Keeping the office open costs about 5 cents a month -- and just this past January, the OCC saved consumers thirty times that much when the Public Utilities Commission rejected a telephone-industry-sponsored bid to replace a per-minute charge on in-state long-distance calls with a flat $1.47 monthly fee. That proposal violated the residential rate cap that the OCC had pushed for back in 1995, Reif's office argued -- and the PUC agreed.

Recent rulings out of Washington, D.C., only increase the OCC's importance. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission decided to give states more authority over their local telephone markets -- which means that local telephone companies will be lobbying the PUC harder than ever. In the consumer's corner: the OCC, and often only the OCC, whose bite is much worse than its bark.

"We intend to be very involved," confirms Reif. "If we're still here."

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