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POLITICS : Race Gets Rocky in Colorado for Romer's Rival : GOP opponent, slowed by personal baggage, cancels debates. Governor surges ahead in the polls.


DENVER — Only a few weeks ago, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and his Republican challenger, millionaire oilman Bruce Benson, were in a dead-heat race that hinged on the depth of voter discontent with incumbent Democrats.

No longer. Benson is trailing badly, hammered by painful revelations about his personal life and a wincing admission that Romer is better than he is at communicating positions on the issues in debate settings.

And in a bizarre turn, the 66-year-old Romer may have picked up sympathy votes two weeks ago when he and the Colorado state trooper who was driving him were tailed for 25 miles by a mysterious red car at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. Police are still searching for that red Chevrolet and its two occupants.

Now, in what some view as a high-stakes move to cut his losses, Benson has canceled all future debates with the two-term governor and returned to a strategy that crushed two opponents in the Republican primary: riding a bus in the campaign and running more negative television ads.

"OK. I'll admit it. Gov. Romer is a better debater than I," said Benson, 56, who had a three-foot-high trophy delivered to Romer's office Thursday. "We want to . . . play by our rules and our game."

That game plan--shunning debates and emphasizing television ads, direct mail and visits with small groups of voters--mirrors the strategy being used in California by Republican U.S. Senate challenger Mike Huffington.

No wonder. Both Huffington and Benson are being managed by Edward J. Rollins, a key manager of former President Ronald Reagan's electoral team.

Rollins used similar tactics in 1993 to salvage the campaign of New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman.

In Colorado, with the election four weeks away, one poll shows Romer leading Benson, 53% to 31%. Another poll places the governor ahead 45% to 33%.

But the former state Republican chairman--who has invested $1.6 million of his own money on a campaign largely based on such national GOP issues as tax cuts, welfare reforms and crime over such pressing local concerns as managing growth--does not appear to be panicking.

"There's no giving up in me," he told reporters recently. "I'm the hardest worker you've ever seen in your life."

Romer blasted his opponent for pulling the plug on debates, calling the decision a "fatal mistake in a state where voters like their politics personal."

"Voters here don't like a candidate who hides behind TV ads," Romer said in an interview. "The most effective way to inform people is to let them see you as you are. . . . After all, you wouldn't buy a car without test-driving it first, would you?"

Nonetheless, Romer acknowledged a general rebellion against incumbency, something which could aid Benson.

Benson's slide in the polls followed a recent disclosure that he was stopped twice in the 1980s for drunk driving. More damaging, however, was the subsequent release of court files that chronicled a long extramarital affair leading up to a contentious divorce. Benson married the woman with whom he had been involved.

Benson's second wife, Marcy Head Benson, worked in George Bush's first presidential campaign as executive assistant to Rollins, who was then the White House political director.

It is not clear whether revelations about Benson's past personal problems have permanently alienated supporters. However, even some leaders in the GOP-controlled state Legislature who were willing to forgive those failings are crestfallen over Benson's decision to duck out of debates.

"I have to say I was disappointed--the best way of getting your message across is to face your opponent and let the voters make a comparison," said Republican state Rep. Tony Grampsas. "We had a shot at it. Now, it's going to be a hard climb out of the hole."

Independent political pollster Floyd Ciruli agreed.

"Here, the seminal events were Benson's divorce and his DUIs, which crippled him in what was a dead-even race."

But Andrew Busch, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, reminded that "the electorate here is very volatile right now, so the race isn't over yet by any means."

Ken Brengle, a Republican and president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, is among the Benson supporters banking on unaffiliated voters to turn the tide.

"There's still a month left in this campaign and elections here are as fickle as the Colorado weather," he said. "Wait 10 minutes and everything will change."

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