AURORA, COLO. — Aurora, Colo.-- Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell always gets a laugh when he assures fellow Coloradans he never bounced a check at the House bank or got a free haircut at the House barber shop.
"Obviously, I don't do that," says Mr. Campbell, 59, bidding to become the first man with a ponytail -- as well as the first Indian -- to sit in the Senate in many years.
But the fact that Mr. Campbell finds himself on the defensive over his record in Washington -- he's just in his third term -- says a great deal about how negative campaigning can turn a Senate race around, especially in a year where anti-politics sentiment is raging.
Mr. Campbell, part Northern Cheyenne and something of a renegade within the Democratic caucus, is hardly a Washington insider. He has been described as a loner, though he prefers the term maverick.
And yet, his opponent's attack ads portray him as a case study in what's wrong with Congress, and the image may be sticking.
Mr. Campbell was heavily favored to win after he defeated former Gov. Richard Lamm in last summer's Democratic primary. But his huge lead has melted under the relentless attacks of Republican Terry Considine, a former state legislator best known as a leader of the national term limit movement.
Mr. Considine, a millionaire conservative, appears to be dictating the terms of the contest these days. Democrat Campbell now must take pains to reassure voters that he, too, has a commitment to reform Congress.
"I recognize that we have to change the institution and get rid of the perks," he told several dozen members of the senior men's club at the Denver Jewish Community Center the other day.
Democratic politicians in the state say Mr. Campbell's lead, 10 points in their latest private poll, should be solid enough to produce a victory next month. But the movement in the campaign has been in the Republican's direction, and the outcome is likely to be very close, both sides say.
Earlier this year, Democrat Tim Wirth shocked Coloradans by deciding, at age 53, to retire after only one term in the Senate.
And while this is just one of the 36 Senate races around the country, it will have a significant impact on the makeup of the new Senate, because of the polar differences between the two major candidates.
Mr. Considine, a 45-year-old graduate of an Eastern prep school and Harvard (both college and law school), is a California native who moved to this state as an adult, as did Mr. Campbell and thousands of other Coloradans.
But his political philosophy is very much in line with the sharply anti-government conservatism of the Rocky Mountain-region Republicans who were a powerful bloc in the Senate during the (( early Reagan years. (His father-in-law, Howard "Bo" Callaway, is a leading fund-raiser for Rep. Newt Gingrich and a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.)
Before a Rotary Club audience at an Aurora, Colo. country club last week, Mr. Considine said he wants to "change everything" in Washington, from the excessive federal tax burden on individuals to the numerous perks enjoyed by congressmen.
If elected, he intends to go national with his term-limit crusade, which already has made Colorado the first state in the nation to restrict members of Congress to 12 years in office (the limits have yet to be tested in the courts).
He accuses Mr. Campbell of being the biggest spender in the Colorado congressional delegation, even though the Democrat is regarded as a fiscal conservative in Washington.
The attacks are a classic example of the hazards of incumbency this fall, especially if the incumbent has been politically careless, as Mr. Campbell appears to have been.
One Considine ad chided Mr. Campbell for missing roll call votes on the same day he held a Washington fund-raising event attended by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, no favorite of conservative swing voters here. The latest GOP ad attacks the ** congressman for "moonlighting on taxpayer time," a reference to a Denver Post article which noted that Mr. Campbell, an accomplished craftsman of silver jewelry, missed congressional votes in 1989 while attending an art show where his work was sold.
Mr. Campbell, who laughs off the attacks, has responded with negative ads of his own that link Mr. Considine to the failed Silverado Banking savings and loan. In the 1980s, a Considine company was unsuccessful in salvaging two Silverado loans that ultimately were repaid by the taxpayers, but no illegalities were alleged.
In the closing days of the race, Democrat Campbell is waging class warfare by portraying himself as the only candidate in the race who is on the side of working class Coloradans. The tactic is an attempt to capitalize on his remarkable personal story, a rise from humble beginnings that included dropping out of school and living in an orphanage. He went on to become a teacher, a policeman and a member of the 1964 Olympic judo team before settling down to a life of raising quarter horses on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies.
As a member of Congress, he has endeared himself to independent-minded Coloradans by keeping his flowing hairstyle and gaining special permission to wear his bolo ties on the House floor.
"If this election is about bio, we're going to lose," says Dick Wadhams, the Considine campaign manager. "If we move it to issues and what's going on, we win. It's that simple."
Maybe not. The decisive issue in the race may well be abortion, and it is hurting the Republican. Mr. Campbell supports abortion rights; Mr. Considine does not, a stance is costing him support among some independents and Republicans.
Staunch anti-abortion activists, however, are expected to vote for a fringe candidate, Matt Noah, running on the Christian Pro-Life Party. Mr. Noah, who has aired TV ads with images of a dead fetus, is expected to attract two or three percent of vote, virtually all of it at Republican Considine's expense.
Paul West is chief of The Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau.