Right now Colorado attorney general Gale Norton looks like she should be a shoo-in for Hank Brown's soon-to-be-empty U.S. Senate seat. She's won two statewide elections, she's made herself highly visible in what is normally a dry, low-profile office, and she's smart. She's pro-choice, talks tough on crime and pushes the death penalty--views that make her popular around here. She tests well, as the pollsters say. She's got the highest "positives" of any Republican in the state, and a recent poll showed her well in the lead for the Republican nomination.

She's also not the type to make some sort of offhand remark that's going to get her in trouble. Norton thinks about everything she says before she says it. You can see the gears grinding. She separates her teeth so slowly, you get the impression that it's painful for her to move her jaw. In a world of blustery politicians, impassioned speeches and near-and-dear causes, 41-year-old Gale Norton is an enigma. She isn't a "people person." She jousts at no windmills. Cool, calculating, well-versed--Norton is Bob Dole without the war record. But that doesn't mean the road to Washington won't be a bumpy one.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised in Thornton, Gale Norton is the elder daughter of two blessed to Dale and Jackie Norton. Her childhood was unremarkable, she says, except for the death of her little sister, Laura, at age seven, of leukemia. Norton is characteristically stoic about the loss: "I recognized there were no guarantees. Opportunities don't come around a second time." She likes the line so much she made it part of her Senate candidacy announcement--complete with the association to her sister's death.

In junior high school Norton fell in love with science fiction, enthralled by authors like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. In high school her adoration turned to drama. (She played Anne Frank's mother in her school's production of The Diary of Anne Frank.) But cheerleading material she was not. "I was the classic `A' student," she says. "Involved in a whole lot of activities, but one of the last ones to be asked out on a date."

In college her loves were twofold: journalism and a man four years her senior--Hal Reed--whom she married shortly after graduation. But it wasn't till she got to law school and read The Fountainhead that she felt she'd found her niche. "I liked the philosophy based on individuality," she says. "One that stresses the importance of people being free to pursue what is best in them--free of government restrictions and of attitudes that people should have to conform to mediocrity."

In 1978 Gale Norton graduated from law school magna cum laude, with Ayn Rand in her head and a divorce in her hand. (Things with Reed hadn't worked out.) She then went to work for James Watt at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, following him to Washington, D.C., when he took over as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior. Norton stayed in Washington three years, bouncing between Interior and the Department of Agriculture, but even Watt has said that she never really fit in. She agrees with the assessment, explaining her dislike for D.C.'s policymaking-by-popularity-contest: "What I did not like about Washington was the tendency to decide goverment policies on the basis of who's for it and who's against it." Finally, she returned to Colorado and private practice in 1987. Three years later she made two life-altering decisions: to marry local real estate agent John Hughes and to run for attorney general.

At a recent Cherry Creek Republican Women's Club meeting, Norton looks out of place among the carefully made-up, heavily jeweled group. She sits at a front table and politely talks to whoever talks to her. She doesn't work the crowd. When it's time for her speech, she graciously compliments Colorado representative Martha Kreutz on how fresh she's looking, then launches into a prepared statement. It's vintage Gale. She starts with three examples of runaway federal regulation, all OSHA standards gone awry. You can feel gusts of Ayn Rand's basic premise blowing by. She shifts gears to stab at the Democrats' reckless spending causing the deficit, but five minutes later she's reciting more examples of silly federal regulations--one dealing with Key Largo wood rats and the psychological damage the government said a landowner was imposing on them. Finally, she closes with her now trademark "opportunity" rhetoric.

"Opportunity" is a common theme in Norton's Senate campaign. In fact, it's the central theme. Just five months after winning her second term as AG, Norton announced she was running for Hank Brown's seat in 1996. Her rationale: The Republicans need to keep the seat, which Brown says he will relinquish, to make the most of the current cycle of conservatism.

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Michelle Johnston