Idaho: weak link in Democratic chain?; GOP wants governor seat in Rockies

In the Rocky Mountain states - the heart of Reagan country - there is an iron chain of Democratic governors which the White House wants badly to break.

The Western Democratic governors have been creating considerable difficulties for the President's New Federalism initiative through organizations such as the Western Governors' Policy Office. Republican strategists say that even a single Republican governor in the area would significantly impede Democratic effectiveness. And it is in the Idaho gubernatorial race that the Republicans currently appear to have the best opportunity to make such an inroad.

Both the Democratic incumbent, John Evans, and his longtime opponent, Lt. Gov. Phil Batt, agree that the race is currently too close to call.

''We definitely have a horse race,'' says Governor Evans.

The fact that the polls show the two candidates so close is a reason for encouragement, argues Mr. Batt's campaign manager, Dirk Kempthorne. At the beginning of the year, Batt was trailing Evans by 11 points. But now polls show less than four points between them.

The dominant, indeed almost the only, issue here is economics. In the last 18 months Idaho, along with a number of other states in the region, has begun to feel the full brunt of the nation's current economic malaise, after more than a decade of seeming immunity. Unemployment is running above 9 percent statewide, with areas economically dependent on forestry and mining at double-digit levels. As a result, the state has had a hard time balancing its budget due to unexpectedly low tax revenues.

Both men are trying to convince Idaho voters that they can do a better job of coping with the state's economic woes. Both claim that they are more consistently pro-business and pro-jobs. Local business community support has split between them.

The contest, which has stuck fairly closely to the issues and each man's record, has centered on a series of town meetings in which the two have met face to face. The last, which took place Sept. 28, was televised over the local public television station and, utilizing satellite communications, allowed citizen's from all of Idaho's major cities to direct questions to the candidates.

The Batt forces have been working diligently to pin some of the blame for Idaho's current problems on the Evans administration. Evans has been countering with the assertion that he has taken prudent steps to minimize the state's problems and to create jobs, but that most of these difficulties stem from national forces and so are beyond local control.

In this part of the country, Democrats and Republicans tend to be fiscal conservatives. Although there are differences between Evans's and Batt's economic positions, these tend to be relatively minor. So both sides have been straining to come up with clear-cut issues on which to argue.

Thus, the gubernatorial race is boiling down as much to style as substance. In states like Idaho, where the entire population is less than that of a number of Eastern cities, state politics is very similar to city politics in the East. The personality of the people involved tends to be more important.

''Idahoans are very independent people. They don't hesitate to vote split tickets. The quality of the individual involved is very important,'' says Evans, trying to answer why such a politically conservative area has shown a penchant for electing both Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. Kempthorne echoes these sentiments and explains that, because the people want a sympathetic figure for governor, one they feel they can take their problems to, Batt's strategy is to refrain from any personal attacks on Evans.

This restraint is made somewhat easier by the fact that independent, New Right groups are attacking the incumbent. One such group published an anti-Evans comic book titled ''The Adventures of Big John.'' On the cover, it portrayed him as a marionette being manipulated by Eastern union bosses. In the televised town meeting, the number of clearly conservative questioners significantly outnumbered liberals.

Still, ''we can't count on a significant anti-Evans vote,'' Kempthorne acknowledges. Instead, they must develop public enthusiasm for Batt, he adds.

All signs point toward a photo-finish. And, on election night, both national Republican strategists and the Democratic governors in other Rocky Mountain states are sure to be watching the Idaho returns anxiously to learn the results.

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