SMITING ANTI-SEMITISM, STEIGER-STYLE

The life of a man running for governor is no longer a thing to call his own. Running the race for the state's top office is in equal parts grueling, repetitive and unnerving. And if a candidate visits enough places and makes enough speeches, he will one day run up against the single question that will plumb the depths of his life experience. The manner in which he answers that single question can tell you more about the candidate than a half-million dollars' worth of carefully written and filmed television commercials. The other day, Sam Steiger experienced such a moment. He was appearing before a Jewish group in Tempe. Halfway through the meeting, Steiger was asked that kind of question. The audience numbered no more than thirty persons. The session had begun in ordinary fashion. Steiger was asked the usual questions about abortion, education, his opponents in the primary race, the accuracy of polls and even that latest litmus test of the campaign: the thoughts he might have about ENSCO and waste disposal. And then it came: "Do you think the fact that you are Jewish will have an effect on your ability to win the election?" The room grew quiet. "I'm glad you asked," Steiger said, not the slightest bit unnerved. "It gives me the chance to tell you about my primary race for the Senate against John Conlan a few years ago. "Conlan was the first of the evangelical Republicans. He campaigned against me in the race for the U.S. Senate a few years ago. "Conlan spent most of the primary in the churches. He kept assuring anyone who would listen that by running for the Senate he was actually doing God's work." Steiger halted briefly. "I didn't mistake anything about him. Conlan was a very dangerous man." As he spoke, Steiger kept looking around the room, making eye contact with several members of the crowd, which now sat transfixed. They realized this wasn't part of his normal political rhetoric. "In the last week of the campaign, Conlan sent out a warning to the voters that they didn't need a New York Jew representing them in the United States Senate. "The Arizona Republic ran it on the front page. Conlan had signed the letter with someone else's name and that guy identified Conlan as the real author. "I realize now that it was the public printing of that charge by the paper that won the primary for me against Conlan," Steiger said. Steiger went on, however, to lose the Senate race to Dennis DeConcini. "What I mean to tell you here today," Steiger said, "is that the only time I have been hurt is by people who didn't consider me Jewish enough. "I don't go to synagogues or buy Israel bonds. And I admit that probably offends some people. And so I tell you here today, that the only time I have ever felt significant impact was that which came from Jews who didn't consider me Jewish enough." Steiger's remarks were met by silence. It was impossible to tell whether that silence meant acceptance or disapproval. Blunt, head-on answers to any and all questions are a large part of Steiger's campaign strategy. Sometimes, it seems that he isn't so much running a campaign as he is traveling around the state to get a lot of things about government off his chest. Steiger clearly understands this is his last hurrah. He may win. He may lose. But people who ask him questions will get straight, blunt answers. They will know where Sam Steiger stands. They can take the answers and make up their own minds. Steiger won't dodge any bullets. There had been a silly charge, made public by J. Fife Symington III, that Steiger had sexually harassed one of the women members of Symington's campaign. Steiger was asked about that now and he broke into a grin. "There is a height of absurdity beyond which most of us won't go," Steiger said. "But apparently that doesn't go for Symington. "He has now written a letter in which he says that I owe an apology to all the women of Arizona. I am supposed to have asked one of his young assistants `if she fools around.' That is the sum and substance of the sexual remark to which Symington refers. "One of the things I'm realistic about is my appearance. Sexy, I'm not. Of course, there's no truth to Symington's charge and he should damned well know it. "I'm only amazed that Symington gave it any credence. It makes me worry about him. There comes a time when a candidate is responsible for his campaign. Fife has far exceeded that point by now and that makes him absurd. "Even the Arizona Republic, whose standards are so minimal as to be nonexistent, refused to run this charge when the Symington people gave it to them." The serious moment had passed. Steiger had bridged it, as he so often does, by making his audience laugh. And there is this about Steiger's brand of humor. He doesn't care whether people are laughing with him or at one of his own self-described foibles. He figures, probably correctly, that as long as he leaves them laughing, he has accomplished his purpose. We went to a restaurant for hamburgers after the meeting. I'll always remember one remark that Steiger made. "I don't know whether I can win this thing," he said, "but if I'm lucky enough to pull it off, I'll be a hell of a governor.

 
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