Republican Istook Battles to Unseat Oklahoma's Popular Governor

Things have not gone as planned for Republican Rep. Ernest Istook, who is giving up a safe seat in the U.S. House to wage a lonely, uphill fight to oust Oklahoma's popular governor.

Istook trails Democratic Gov. Brad Henry by more than 20 percentage points as the Nov. 7 election nears, according to public opinion surveys.

The social conservative has had fundraising problems and has aired only one television ad in his general election campaign, while Henry's well-funded campaign has aired a slew of slick commercials.

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Istook has had to answer questions about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Capitol Hill page scandal. He was bruised during a GOP primary in which a comedian wore an Istook mask and made pig noises in an ad for an opponent who attacked the seven-term congressman over pork-barrel spending.

Through it all, Henry, a folksy centrist who has gotten along well with Republicans, has been able to stay largely out of the fray, relying on a record that includes large tax cuts.

He seldom mentions his opponent by name, while Istook calls news conferences to criticize Henry on such issues as immigration and law and order while campaigning across Oklahoma.

"I would say that whoever talked Istook into running is probably in hiding right now," said Bob Darcy, an Oklahoma State University political professor. "Henry is pretty popular, but I think from Istook's point of view, the big problem is Republicans don't hate him. Henry's not a lightning rod that would cause Republicans to spend money just to keep the (Istook) campaign alive."

The governor has raised an estimated $4.4 million to date for a campaign he anticipated would cost up to $5 million. Meanwhile, presidential advisor Karl Rove recently visited Oklahoma City to boost Istook's fundraising effort, which had only amounted to $29,000 in cash in early August.

Robert Shapiro, an expert on polling at Columbia University, said Rove's visit looked "almost like a hail Mary sort of thing."

Istook's congressional colleagues for the most part have not been seen with him on the campaign trail.

In August, Istook watched from the sidelines as Oklahoma's senior senator, Jim Inhofe, was photographed presenting the governor with a plaque from the federal Department of Transportation after the state got a $16 million research project. Istook spoke briefly, saying he was proud to help get the funding.

Some top Republicans in the state considered challenging Henry this year, but looked at his 75 percent approval rating and thought better of it. Among them was Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, now seeking the House seat Istook is vacating.

The congressman acknowledges that his campaign has been hampered by "distractions."

Early on, Istook had to respond to news reports linking him to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to bribing public officials. "I barely knew the man," Istook told The Associated Press after he and his political action committee returned or gave to charity $29,000 in contributions from Abramoff or his clients.

He unexpectedly had to spend more than $1 million in the primary, dodging accusations from Tulsa businessman Bob Sullivan that he was part of the problem of overspending in Congress.

His latest distraction came when a deputy campaign manager from California left after the congressional page scandal broke. Jordan Edmund was interviewed by the FBI, which is investigating whether former Rep. Mark Foley sent Edmund inappropriate text messages when the aide was a congressional page.

Istook, 56, shrugs off the problems. "I'm undeterred by difficulties. I'm staying on message," he said during a recent stop in Nowata.

His campaign has mostly consisted of walking along main streets with his wife, Judy, often arriving in town unannounced in a sport utility vehicle.

Istook, known for pushing prayer in schools, speaks frequently about family values and criticizes Henry for his support of the state lottery, which was created last year after overwhelming voter approval.

On the campaign trail, even some supporters seem lukewarm.

While visiting the town of Skiatook, Istook told a group he wants to fix state roads and create jobs.

Asked what he thought of Istook's plans, Duane Boynton said: "I vote Republican, what can I say? But they (candidates) are all the same."