Although the Democratic National Convention doesn't open in Denver until August 25, 2008, press coverage in these parts makes it seem as if the balloons are just about to drop. There's hardly an edition of a local daily newspaper or a nightly newscast that doesn't include some tidbit of DNC news, leaving Republican politicos to fight over the scraps. And as the convention nears, the coverage disparity is likely to expand.
Such a scenario should fill Colorado Republican Party head Dick Wadhams with despair — but if that's the case, he's doing a fine job of hiding his pain. He acknowledges that getting reporters to concentrate on Republican concerns in this environment will be problematic. "With Denver hosting a national convention, it'll be easy for the media to gravitate to anything Democratic," he says. But, he goes on, "I see it as an opportunity for the Colorado Republican Party as well. I think the Colorado media, in particular, will be sensitive to this and will actually seek out a Republican response as we get closer to the convention. And I think it will help Republican candidates."
How? Wadhams's response plays on already familiar GOP themes. While he views Hillary Clinton as a weaker candidate than her two highest-profile rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards, he predicts that the Democrats will nominate her for president anyway. Moreover, he believes any of the Republican presidential frontrunners — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson — can beat her, at least in Colorado. And he expects that the party platform approved at the convention will be "so liberal" it will hurt Colorado candidates such as senatorial hopeful Mark Udall, who he says is "trying to cultivate a moderate image." That could boost Bob Schaffer, the presumptive Republican nominee.
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In the meantime, Wadhams has a secret weapon when it comes to disseminating the Republican message: himself. "What I hope to do as state chairman is to be engaged with Colorado reporters on a day-to-day basis in terms of offering our viewpoint from the Colorado Republican perspective," he says. "And I'll do the same thing nationally. There'll be some national interest in what we have to say since the convention is being held in Denver." He points out that he's already receiving regular calls from scribes and TV types beyond state lines, which doesn't surprise him in the slightest. "Because I've been involved with elections outside Colorado, I've gotten acquainted with a lot of national reporters who cover national politics," he allows. "I stay in contact with them on these things, and I think that's helpful."
Of course, Wadhams's rep with big-time journalists is tough to gauge given the ups and downs he's experienced in recent years. He made his name as a campaign manager and consultant by helping candidates widely perceived to have deep flaws get elected — and re-elected. Take former Montana senator Conrad Burns. During a visit to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle amid his Wadhams-assisted 1994 run for a second term, Burns was asked by a rancher how he could live in Washington, D.C. "with all those niggers," and he replied that it was "a hell of a challenge." He won in a landslide anyway, and with Wadhams by his side again, he earned a third Senate stint in 2000 even after referring to Arabs as "ragheads." (Wadhams wasn't part of Burns's 2006 race, which he lost.) Wadhams also oversaw the 1996 and 2002 Senate campaigns of Colorado's Wayne Allard, who was no one's idea of a political firebrand. "The Democrats used to make fun of him," Wadhams says. Even so, Allard twice defeated Tom Strickland, whom Wadhams effectively branded as a "millionaire lawyer-lobbyist."
Wadhams did just as well when it came to strong contenders such as Bill Owens, whose gubernatorial campaigns he managed to victory. (He also served three years as Owens's press secretary.) But his biggest score was in 2004, when he engineered South Dakota senator John Thune's defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. As Wadhams tells it, few observers saw the incumbent as vulnerable. "They just hoped we could make the election close and keep Tom Daschle busy," he says. "But I didn't go up there to get an e for effort." Wadhams-haters charged him with dirty trickery along the way, doing their best to link him to stunts such as delivering bumperstickers to churches that read "Vote Daschle, Vote for Sodomy." But Wadhams stresses that Thune nearly had been elected to the Senate two years earlier — "You couldn't beat Daschle by finding any Republican with a pulse," he concedes — and credits a strategy that "showed people the way Senator Daschle had voted in Washington versus what he was saying in South Dakota."
By taking Daschle's scalp, Wadhams transformed himself into the hot new political guru. In 2005, a Slate article dubbed him "Karl Rove's Heir Apparent" — a label that was more impressive then than now. But these gains were lost when he decided to back Virginia senator George Allen, whose 2006 re-election bid against Democrat Jim Webb went south. The key moment took place in August, when Allen, who'd already been accused of being a little too fond of the Confederate flag, labeled a Webb underling of Indian ancestry "macaca," a term for a genus of monkey that doubles as an obscure racial slur.
Upon hearing about the incident during a phone call, Wadhams says, "I couldn't grasp the enormity of it" — a reaction that probably ac-counts for his initially dismissing the story with what the Washington Post described as "a barnyard epithet." Today Wadhams insists that he understood how damaging the comment was the moment he saw it on video. Yet the Allen brain trust sent mixed signals for more than a week, and by the time everyone had finally settled on contrition, it was too late. Webb won, handing control of the entire Senate to the Democrats.
Suddenly, Wadhams was the golden boy no longer — but a new prospect soon presented itself. Colorado Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany phoned to chat about who should lead the Colorado Republicans and soon concluded that Wadhams was the man for the job. Wadhams says he laughed off the suggestion only to change his mind because of the challenge involved in trying to turn Colorado red again, as well as the likelihood that Denver would land the DNC. In his words, "I thought, wouldn't it be fun to help rebuild the party after two bad cycles and be here when the Democrats come to town?"
Thus far, Wadhams has mainly resisted the urge to go head-to-head with Dems over convention developments. When Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean visited Denver on August 22, "I could have held a counter news conference," Wadhams maintains. "But it's not significant what they're doing now." Nevertheless, he notes, Channel 2's Jann Tracey, Channel 4's Terry Jessup and Channel 9's Adam Schrager "proactively called me and asked for comments." He regards the trio's actions as a sign that the local media will make an honest attempt to give Republicans a say in the face of DNC fever — and he plans to reward them with releases and events designed to stir things up.
"As we get deeper into the actual election next year, we'll be weighing in very directly," he promises. "It's too early for that give-and-take. But I will be doing more of it. A lot more."
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CPR for CPR: When last we heard from attorney Frances Koncilja ("Going Public," June 14), she had resigned from her position on the Colorado Public Radio board to protest what she saw as an attempt by CPR chieftain Max Wycisk and chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher to change organizational by-laws in order to ramrod through a host of dubious proposals. Since then, she's created a Colorado Public Radio blog, at http://coloradopublicradio.blogspot.com/, which has quickly developed into the go-to site for news about the state's public radio stations, including CPR. Among other things, she's posted documents that shed more light on her concerns.
The next big day in Koncilja's battle to save CPR from itself is September 19, when the board is expected to meet for the first time since putting many of the plans she criticized on hold. Via e-mail, she writes that her preparations for the session will include contacting local officials who appear on the network to "ask them to inquire of management why there is no diversity on the board and on air." She's also requesting input from "previous boardmembers" plus "current sponsors and underwriters." She adds, "Even though I was not asked to submit anything" for the meeting, "I have."
As she understands, silence isn't always golden.