Halloween VI: Election Fright!

In the sixth congressional district, J.D. Hayworth and Steve Owens have run campaigns so devoid of content it's almost scary

Now, anyone who's worked on Capitol Hill--and this includes the state Democratic party's legal counsel, Andy Gordon, as well as party chairman Sam Coppersmith--knows that aides regularly sign the names of members of Congress on their behalf. But in this particular case, the signature was notarized, and therefore should have been authentic.

Owens and his cohorts have a point when they say the forgery is illegal and raises concerns about Hayworth's conduct. But the Owens campaign went to great lengths to make the forgery the issue of the campaign.

The forgery "scandal" did have the practical effect of forcing Hayworth to fire his campaign manager, Marcus Dell'Artino, who allegedly forged the signature. That left the Hayworth campaign leaderless for a few days in September, just as the election was kicking into high gear.

But Dell'Artino was replaced as campaign manager by Scott Celley, a man with a reputation for playing hardball on behalf of senators John McCain and Jon Kyl.

Under Celley's reign, the Hayworth camp has responded to low-grade sleaze with some cheap shots of its own.

For months, the AFL-CIO has run ads criticizing Hayworth's record on Medicare, taxes, education and pensions. But instead of responding to those charges specifically, Celley faxed reams of newspaper articles and "fact sheets," citing thousands of dollars in contributions to Owens from the Laborer's International Union of North America (LIUNA), and alleging that LIUNA has ties to organized crime.

Hayworth's campaign also released commercials claiming that Owens returned to his native Tennessee a few years ago to see if he'd have a shot at running for Congress from there. Owens vehemently denies the charge.

But perhaps the dumbest commercial was produced not by Hayworth, but by the National Republican Congressional Committee on his behalf. It was designed to counter AFL-CIO ads that had been running for months, accusing Hayworth of voting for dramatic cuts in Medicare and other social spending programs.

The counterattack features a sepia-toned scene of rotund, cigar-smoking "labor bosses" shaking hands across a table stacked with money. A voice tells the audience, "The big labor bosses in Washington, D.C., have a big scheme to buy the Congress. . . . They oppose requiring welfare recipients to work, they're for higher taxes and against a balanced budget. The big unions spend big money on ads because they want Steve Owens to vote their way."

A sweet, mindless, phony middle-class woman sitting in an immaculate kitchen asks, "So who's going to represent me?"

The thought that she might get exactly the congressional representative she deserves, regardless of who wins in November, immediately pops to mind.

Owens' main television advertising blitz began October 21. Content-wise, the ads are less muddy than Hayworth's--and actually mention some issues--but still lack the punch they could have.

At this late date, Owens' ads still feature the great Hayworth forgery scandal as the incumbent's biggest mistake in Congress. They barely mention Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America.

Across the country, polls show that Gingrich and the Contract With America that won Republicans control of Congress in 1994 have fallen in extreme disfavor. In casual conversation, Owens calls it the "Contract on America" and chuckles that Hayworth has hastily tried to distance himself from Gingrich in the last few weeks. But Owens has failed to use the Contract--the best Democratic weapon across the country--effectively.

In fact, there has been remarkably little attempt by either campaign to distinguish the candidates from one another based on issues or policy.

Of course, there are some areas where Owens and Hayworth agree. Both support Indian gaming, a balanced budget and campaign finance reform.

But in most areas, the candidates are polar opposites:

* Social spending: While Owens supports recently passed welfare-reform legislation, he opposes cuts in student loans, pensions, school-lunch programs and Medicare made during Gingrich's reign. Hayworth supported--and still supports--such legislation.

* Taxes: Hayworth strongly supports tax cuts, including the plan proposed by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. Owens has not endorsed such a plan, and refuses to pledge that he will not vote to raise taxes.

* Gun control: Owens supports gun control. Hayworth does not.

* Education: Hayworth would like to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and give control of schools to the states. Owens opposes the idea.

* National Parks and Monuments: Hayworth voted repeatedly for legislation to create a national park closure commission, much like the commission that shut down military bases. Owens opposes that legislation and--unlike Hayworth--supported President Clinton's dedication of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

* Environment: Hayworth and his supporters point to expansion of Walnut Canyon National Monument as proof of his pro-environment stance. But the Sierra Club strongly opposes Hayworth, citing his poor ratings from the National League of Conservation Voters. Owens shies away from the topic, possibly because many District 6 residents are wise-users, and, oddly for a Democrat, he has not sought the Sierra Club's endorsement.

* Abortion: Hayworth is anti- and Owens is pro-choice.

Not one of these major substantive policy differences has been a focus of campaigning by either candidate in Congressional District 6.

The last independent poll on the Hayworth-Owens race was conducted in late September. The two were virtually tied. Perhaps because of the closeness of the race, as the 1996 campaign season draws to a close, the nastiness is growing even more intense.

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