When Health Becomes a Recruiting Tool

Posted November 12, 2003 at 6:54pm

If, as the saying goes, patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, then Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s (R) health may be the last refuge for Democrats hoping to compete in the 2004 Colorado Senate race.

No one is quite willing to say it that way: Since his reluctant disclosure last month that he was being treated for prostate cancer, Campbell’s health has been the elephant in the room that everybody ignores — including the Senator himself.

Yet from the start of this cycle, Democrats’ strongest hope for winning Campbell’s seat has not been defeating him, but the notion that the 70-year-old Senator could, in the end, opt not to seek a third term.

And despite Campbell’s recent declarations and fundraising, according to some political operatives in both the Centennial State and Washington, D.C., even now there is the faint whisper that his health may be worse than anyone is letting on — and that the 2004 Senate election could, in fact, be an open-seat race. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Democrats are using Campbell’s health as a recruiting tool.

“I think the Democrats have for a long time been trying to promulgate any rumors they could that the Senator is not running,” said Cinamon Watson, Campbell’s campaign manager.

Even at this late date in the cycle, the Democratic field in the race is not quite formed, as the party is still waiting for word from Rep. Mark Udall about whether he’ll challenge Campbell.

Although Udall has all but said that while he’d like to serve in the Senate some day he is unwilling to run against Campbell, Democratic leaders continue to lean on him. Just two weeks ago, Udall conferred with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) again about the race.

Udall’s official position on a Senate run is that he’s still weighing his options and will decide by the end of the year.

“This is really all about, from Mark’s perspective, how he can best make a contribution,” said Udall spokesman Lawrence Pacheco.

With his high name recognition in Colorado and his family’s political profile nationally, Udall probably could still run a competitive, well-funded Senate campaign, even if he enters the race late. The filing deadline is June 1.

But the political dynamics in Republican-trending Colorado have barely changed since the election cycle began; if Campbell was going to be vulnerable, he is no more vulnerable today than he was three or six or 12 months ago, despite the disclosures about his cancer.

Thus it seems likely that Udall is hanging on for any last-minute change in Campbell’s status — or at least that some of the people who are advising the House Member are. One Colorado Democrat, who requested anonymity, suggested recently that Campbell is due to begin a tough regimen of chemotherapy in early 2004 as part of his cancer treatment, even though Watson said the Senator’s daily radiation treatments ended last week.

Udall has said his deliberations depend in part on how a court rules on the state’s new Congressional redistricting plan, implying that if the court keeps the new GOP-driven plan intact, he may be compelled to stay in the House to ensure more Democratic representation from Colorado in that chamber. But Democrats have several solid potential candidates waiting in the wings if Udall runs for Senate, and their chances of maintaining the 2nd district seat are good regardless of what he does.

The lone Democrat to have entered the Colorado Senate race, school administrator and former Army Ranger Michael Miles, said he takes Campbell’s fundraiser last week with Vice President Cheney as a sign that he is really running — and wishes Democratic leaders would face up to the reality.

“Having some clarity [in the race] is a good thing,” Miles said. “I wish we could get a little more clarity about who’s running on the Democratic side.”

Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, insisted that Campbell’s health is not a factor in the party’s search for a Senate candidate — and is not an issue that the Democrats would raise in a campaign against him.

“It really hasn’t changed the dynamic of the race at all,” Gates said. “This is something that we’ve known about and have talked about quietly all along. Mark Udall was seriously looking at the race before [news of Campbell’s cancer] came out, and he is seriously considering it now.”

Gates also said that if Miles winds up the Democratic Senate nominee, “he can beat Ben Campbell.”

Miles, who had just $25,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30, has crisscrossed the state meeting party activists and has already aired a short biographical spot on TV, produced by a former student. He said he would air a humorous new ad in January, comparing his qualifications with Campbell’s.

While Democrats continue to dance around the cancer question, Campbell apparently hopes to ignore it. His office did not disclose that he was being treated until the Rocky Mountain News was about to report it.

In an interview with the News published Saturday, Campbell dismissed his health problems and instead said he was preparing for his re-election campaign as he did for the 1964 Olympic judo competition.

“It’s nothing. It’s not going to stop me,” he told the newspaper in a statement befitting his macho image.

Even if Campbell was to forgo the Senate race in the end, the Democrats’ task would still be difficult. Several formidable Republicans appear to be waiting in the wings, beginning with Gov. Bill Owens and retiring Rep. Scott McInnis.