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Up With The Underdog

Sam Steiger is moving faster than anyone expected. As a result, things have changed dramatically. In the race for governor, the balance of power has shifted.

Almost without anyone noticing, Steiger has emerged as a front-runner. At first there was a question whether Steiger could be taken seriously. Now that hurdle has been successfully negotiated.

Unless the two moneyed candidates, Samuel P. Goddard III and J. Fife Symington III, catch on to this phenomenon very quickly, they will find themselves too far behind Steiger to catch up.

Out of sight of the media, Steiger has been running a solid campaign. There hasn't been a single missed step taken during Steiger's solitary drive toward what would be the most dramatic political comeback in Arizona history.

With his low-key style, Steiger is creating an aura that can't be established by expensive pollsters or canned television commercials like those produced by the out-of-state political consultants who are handling Symington and Goddard.

Steiger, with his long identification with Arizona, is that extremely rare candidate capable of creating confidence. Voters already know him. They know his history and they accept it. There can be no surprises. They feel comfortable with him.

On the platform, Steiger is a natural. There is about him the perception that he speaks the truth because it isn't worth his while to practice dissimulation.

Steiger's natural wit and self-deprecating humor, his obviously superior knowledge of the political arena are powerful assets. They make his listeners feel good, not only about him but, more important, about themselves.

They hear Steiger talk about saving Arizona and they begin to believe there's a chance to set things straight in this terribly mixed-up state.

Best of all, it's obvious the Steiger campaign for governor is being run only by Sam Steiger. The rest of it is a skeleton staff. He has been to the political dance before. He knows all the steps. Some he has learned through painful lessons.

While Goddard and Symington pour money into slick television commercials, Steiger will limit himself to radio spots to be broadcast during May, June, and July.

The radio spots were created by Steiger's two sons after taping him in conversation for nine hours.

The spots will be called "A Moment With Sam Steiger," and they will have the undeniable flavor of Steiger, talking off-the-cuff.

"I always had the belief," Steiger says, "that if I could just talk to everybody in Arizona, that I could win." Steiger wants to disprove a perception that political consultants have been selling as gospel for the last two decades. This is the idea that campaigns must be run by out-of-state experts and not the candidate himself.

The consultants--while earning themselves huge fees--have taken individual style away from the candidates and turned them into puppets. Steiger has faith in his own style. He is stubborn enough to believe that a man with reasonably good intelligence can beat a candidate with a trunk full of money who is hampered by being overmanaged.

Four years ago, when Evan Mecham scored his astonishing upset, the political establishment recoiled in horror. The uproar that followed as the wheels were being greased to destroy Mecham should have been expected. But a Steiger victory would bring no such outcry. There's a crucial difference that can't be stressed too heavily about Steiger's campaign. People who hear him speak not only like him but are pleasantly surprised by his good sense and his humor. So a victory by Steiger would result in an era of good political feeling.

A true populist with a clearly pragmatic approach, Steiger is perceived as having the combination of courage, candor, toughness and impatience needed to deal with a governor's office that has been immobilized since Mecham's impeachment.

Given the stillness on the ninth floor during the Rose Mofford period, it's actually amazing that the situation isn't even more deteriorated.

It's no wonder Mofford was ordered off the Democratic ticket by those twin political towers, Sam and Terry Goddard.

At age sixty, Steiger presents an extraordinary contrast to the youthful Goddard.

Steiger is the veteran warrior. He has been through the fire. Goddard is clearly the overambitious whippersnapper perceived to have been on a political power trip since his high school graduation. Symington comes off precisely as a wealthy dilettante. He is the victim of perfect casting.

For Steiger, a four-year term as governor would be his last hurrah, one grand attempt at fixing everything that has been allowed to corrode in this state by years of unopposed venality and mass incompetency at the State Capitol.

Three months ago, you would have earned derisive laughter if you expressed the belief that Steiger could mount a solid challenge for the Republican nomination.

He had been around too long. He had been the center of so many events. It had taken him a long time to rebound from the disaster of his senatorial loss to Dennis DeConcini and the now legendary primary against John Conlan.

Perhaps for this reason, political observers were afraid to regard Steiger as a serious candidate. The wonder is that they ever doubted him. Everyone simply forgot that Steiger is a phenomenal campaigner, the best ever seen in this state.

They expressed doubts about his seriousness. There was the age-old doubt that a man who can make people laugh might also be able to make them think. In writing Steiger off, they completely forgot the lessons offered in earlier times by Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Sam Steiger is a serious political animal who not only loves the political game but is clearly more gifted in his chosen field than anyone else in the race.

If he doesn't win, it won't be because he wasn't the best man for the job. His defeat would only prove that he was wrong about needing enormous amounts of money to run a campaign.

There is about Steiger the perception that he speaks the truth because it isn't worth his while to practice dissimulation.

"I always had the belief that if I could just talk to everybody in Arizona that I could win." He is stubborn enough to believe that a man with reasonably good intelligence can beat a candidate with a trunk full of money.

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Tom Fitzpatrick