Bruce Benson turned his back on the governor's race last week.
In one of the most stunning about-faces in Colorado campaign history, the Republican gubernatorial candidate turned the other cheek--literally--for a television ad that shows him strolling away from the camera through the scenic shrubbery while he confesses, again, to having been caught in the weeds: two DUI arrests almost fifteen years before and a painful divorce much more recently. The only thing missing from the plaintive scene is some background wailing by John Denver, who's been singing much the same tune lately.
While digesting Benson's peculiar apologia--which looks like a Levi's ad and carries all the emotional wallop of a Hallmark greeting card--the viewer almost inevitably starts speculating about that worn spot on the back pocket of Benson's faded, form-fitting jeans. It seems too small for a successful oilman's wallet--but then, Benson has shelled out millions on his almost unbelievably incompetent run for governor.
Now here he is on TV, walking away.
Just as he walked away from the debates with Romer. Just as he walked away from that first marriage.
And still Benson keeps apologizing.
In his last ad, Benson's daughter did the dirty work, sniffling as she recalled her father's encouragement ("I'm proud of you, young lady") during some twenty-year-old event at school.
What's next? Benson's servants talking about what a swell, honest master he is as they lay out his carefully laundered jeans?
A bunch of roustabouts sitting around after a tough day at the gusher, sipping martinis and reminiscing about Bruce's valiant efforts to limit environmental damage from all that drilling?
A Real Stories of the Highway Patrol re-enactment of those two DUI arrests--and an explanation, perhaps, of how a candidate who's so tough on crime got such good plea bargains in a county where the DA had publicly touted his refusal to cut deals on drunk-driving charges?
Or Marcy Head Benson, his second wife, confessing all her sins while garbed in a good, Republican cloth coat--presumably just prior to turning in that snappy convertible Bruce bought with his pre-divorce assets for a vehicle that makes Bea Romer's used Caprice look like a Corvette?
Marcy used to work with Ed Rollins, the supposed Washington wizard brought in to help mastermind Benson's campaign. Rollins won't want to put this race on his resume, though. He was all over the national news shows Sunday, pontificating about the great gains Republicans would make in the Senate, in the House, in the governors' seats. But the maps showing where Democrats were vulnerable never lit up on Colorado. Sorry about that.
Three months ago Roy Romer was looking as shaky as the Denver Public Schools budget. He seemed eminently beatable. People across the country were tired of incumbents, tired of politics as usual--and people in Colorado were no exception. Polls showed that Romer could easily be overtaken by Benson, who possessed the millions and a momentum that had carried him right past the traditional caucus system, past an experienced legislator and an almost professional candidate who fought hard in the primary.
But then came the real fight--and the DUI confession, the divorce debacle, the debate-ditching.
From a race that had once looked like a walk, Benson started walking away--resembling nothing more than a petulant boy millionaire who'd discovered that the other kids don't play by his rules.
And now Romer, whose campaign has consisted mainly of running in place (when he's not fleeing from any association with the epithet "liberal"), has not only regained the lead but stretched out far ahead. He's even taken to wearing running shoes with his business suits, for that guv-on-the-go look.
And Benson, who should be on the attack, just keeps on apologizing.
The inexplicable thing about Benson's current campaign strategy is that this election has never been over family values--and unless something changes drastically in the next two weeks, it never will be. Romer may have seven children, but no one thinks of him as the Mister Rogers of Eighth Avenue. He, too, is a millionaire many times over. His bomber jacket is hardly warm and fuzzy.
Benson has nothing to apologize for--except the fact that he is not running his campaign like the savvy, successful businessman he professes to be. He wasn't doing badly on those debates he ceded to Romer. And judging from the popularity of Amendment 12, voters still are plenty interested in the issues, in accountability, maybe even in throwing the bums out.
But on that new commercial, when Benson finally turns to face the camera, he promises "leadership" in a way that makes you think the only thing he's headed for is obscurity.
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Coloradans are not likely to follow a leader who walks away.
They could, however, carry away several lessons from the Benson candidacy.
The first: What's been sealed can be unsealed.
The second: Confession may be good for the soul, but it doesn't do much at the polls. Unless, of course, Benson suddenly confesses that he was the guy behind the wheel of that red Chevy that chased Romer halfway across Colorado.
And finally, perhaps the most heartening lesson of all: There are some things money can't buy.