Oklahoma GOP watches its hopes for gains fade

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Oklahoma Republicans' smiles are becoming frowns. The party had been excited about the congressional races here. Some still hope that Oklahoma will play a vital role by adding pro-Reagan voices to help offset expected GOP losses in the upper Midwest and the Northeast.

But the picture has been changing. Unemployment here is over 6 percent - low compared with the national 10.1 percent but high enough by Oklahoma standards to raise doubts about Reaganomics. As profits turn to dust for agriculture and the recently booming oil and natural gas business, the state as a whole hurts.

Republican contenders had counted on oil money to finance a successful '82 assault on Democratic strongholds. Instead, the dramatic collapse of Oklahoma City's Penn Square Bank last July signaled that oil money would be harder to find than oil.

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In the governor's race, few Oklahomans ever considered Republican Tom Daxon a serious threat to the popular, politically savvy, and well-financed Democratic incumbent, George Nigh. Along with picking up endorsements from prominent Republicans and business leaders, Governor Nigh has poured a lot of Republican money into his coffers.

Neither Sen. David Boren (D) nor Sen. Don Nickles (R) face elections this year.

Because corruption apparently was as active under Republican governors as under Democrats, the GOP has not made a political issue out of the continuing federal indictments that have swept most county commissioners out of office and often into jail.

So most interest has centered on the races for Oklahoma's six US House seats, now held by five conservative Democrats and one ultraconservative Republican. The GOP counted on picking up two more congressional seats here. Heavy spending was seen as the key to unseating House Budget Committee chairman James Jones, a powerful five-term Democrat the Reagan administration would love to send home.

Freshman Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) was also targeted. His voting record has been conservative, lining him up, he says, ''with the President more often than with Tip O'Neill.'' But Mr. McCurdy won in 1980 with only a 2 percent margin over former Vietnam POW Howard Rutledge. With full national Republican party backing, Mr. Rutledge has spent the last two years gearing up for this November's elections.

But with Republican campaign funds trimmed back, most observers here expect Congressmen Jones and McCurdy to keep their seats. The McCurdy-Rutledge race is only one in which the GOP has even a faint chance for victory.

Rutledge, however, is determined. Working the Saturday shoppers in Lawton's downtown mall, he explains that ''if Ronald Reagan is unpopular here, then I'm not going to win this election.'' But he predicts that his outspoken support for Reagan will pay off: ''People here want the President and his programs to work. Why? Because (the Democratic) alternative is to tax and spend, which is how we got saddled with high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment.''

Rutledge says the President needs more support in Congress rather than men like McCurdy who ''talk conservative but vote liberal.''

Fifth-generation Oklahoman Dave McCurdy is convinced his opponent will fail to pin a ''liberal-big-spender'' label on him ''because it just doesn't fit.''

McCurdy has mailed out his complete voting record to his constituents to let voters judge for themselves. Answering his opponent's contention that President Reagan needs more support in Congress, McCurdy says that ''I have worked with the President closely, and I will continue to support his policies whenever I think his policies are right.''

If voters return more congressmen like him to Washington, McCurdy says, ''this will put greater pressure on the President to look at both sides of the issues and to moderate some of his requests.''

Sears employee Mary Smith doesn't agree. ''If Reagan is going to do the job, then he has to have a Republican Congress,'' says this registered Democrat. ''A lot of Democrats here would not think of voting Republican,'' Mrs. Smith adds, ''but I believe we have to be broad-minded.''

Local Democratic power J. C. Kennedy, chairman of the board of Lawton's Security Bank & Trust Company, sees himself as a typical Oklahoman in being ''fiscally conservative, but not to the point of stopping government.'' People here will continue electing Democrats, he says, because ''what's so bad about feeding hungry kids, or sending disadvantaged students to college to get PhDs?''

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