Wisconsin Senate race suddenly tight

It is the noon lunch break at Alverno College in Milwaukee. The smiling candidate in the beige suit with the well-srubbed, collegiate good looks shakes a few hands on his way to the podium at one end of the cafeteria.

Then, microphone in hand, he gets quickly to the point: "I'm running for the US Senate because I believe Gaylord Nelson has been in Washington long enough. He continues to vote as if the last 20 years hadn't happened. . . . He's out of touch with Wisconsin voters."

It is a typical theme for any candidate challenging an incumbent. But in Robert Kasten's case, the heavy stress on the need to remove the liberal Democratic incumbent seeking his fourth term, combined with a thoughtful spelling-out of his own conservative political philosophy, is already having a marked impact on Wisconsin voters.

Just a month or so ago the race was viewed as a shoo-in for Mr. Nelson. The senator has held public office since 1948 and is regarded as one of Wisconsin's most venerable political institutions. But a statewide poll taken by Republicans in mid-September -- Robert Teeter's Market Opinion Research in Detroit -- gave candidate Kasten a two-point lead over Mr. Nelson. And recently the Senate Republican Campaign Committee elevated the Wisconsin Senate contest to its top priority tier. Mr. Kasten, who has complained that he will be outspent by his opponent, now will get a full array of financial ($216,000) and technical help from the party.

In the presidential contest, Wisconsinis viewed as a swing state now leaning toward Ronald Reagan, a prospect that could help Republican Kasten considerably. He may also capitalize on a Wisconsin tradition: The state's maverick voters frequently have opted for a fresh face rather than experience. Just two years ago, for instance, they elected as governor the unconventional Lee Dreyfus, a onetime university president whose folksy trademark is a red vest. And when Kasten, who has served two terms as a US Congressman (1974-78), was first elected, he toppled an incumbent with 18 years experience.

The Republican challenger hits hard on what he calls "the Nelson gap," the difference between conservative talk among voters at home and a liberal voting record in Washington. He cites as examples Nelson votes against indexing taxes as inflation protection and votes against increases in military pay and defense spending.

Kasten, who describes himself as a small-business man and says he and his father were virtually driven out of the shoe business by government regulation, also accuses Nelson of being less than a friend to small business. Although Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Small Business, the senator failed to supprt the two major tax and accelerated depreciation recommendations of the recent White House Conference on Small Business, according to his opponent.

In reply, Nelson claims that his challenger is distorting his voting record by taking votes on amendments and bills out of context.

The race presents voters with a classic choice between liberal and conservative candidates. Nelson, who has survived attacks on his liberal voting record, has a solid reputation as a progressive thinker and an excellent record of service to constituents. He is stressing his experience and Senate seniority. Many of his ads focus on his pro-environment stands for conservation of forest and lake areas.

He also can count on a solid base of labor support. Mrs. Dolores Mears, a member of an Allied Industrial Workers local who works in an air-conditioning manufacturing plant, says she particularly admires his voting record on labor, environment, and defense issues: "That B-1 bomber would have been obsolete before it was built," she says.

Kasten has been particularly courting farm and small business votes in Wisconsin. Though he does not go out of his way to align himself with Mr. Reagan, his views on defense and the economy closely parallel the those of the presidential candidate. He told the Alverno College audience, for instance, that economic incentives now are "inside out," that they reward nonwork, spending, and borrowing so that growth and productivity are stifled.

The point strikes a responsive chord with many voters in the audience. Britton Bell, a student who works in a small office, says she will vote a straight Republican ticket this year for the first time. "I've always considered myself more a Democrat than a Republican, but I think he [Kasten] is absolutely right when he says that we've got to get the government off people's backs. That's the bottom line that can pick up everything -- morale, investment , employment. . . ."

Supporters of both candidates concede that the race looks as if it will be close and that many voters may not decide until just before the election.

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