Democrats' bid to take GOP Senate seat falters in Oklahoma

In this tiny oil town that has seen better days, Don Nickles grips the hand and slaps the back of the local newspaper publisher and offers a hearty, reflexive ``How things goin'?'' ``Terrible,'' comes the reply. ``This is Oklahoma.''

There is plenty of economic news from Oklahoma these days, and almost all of it is bad. Oil and wheat prices have tumbled. Daily conversation tends to dwell on some bank or industry on the ropes. Unemployment is near double-digit levels.

But conservative Republican US Senator Nickles, up for reelection next week, is riding high.

A few months ago Democrats were hungrily eying the Nickles seat. The freshman senator had come from nowhere to be swept into office in 1980 by Ronald Reagan's coattails and a ferocious grass-roots drive orchestrated among fundamentalist Christians by the Moral Majority. Only 31 years old at the time, Mr. Nickles represented a state enjoying the giddy fruits of unprecedented prosperity.

But within a few years, oil prices collapsed, energy industries joined their agricultural brethren in a mini-depression, and the Oklahoma economy went into a nose dive. Nickles seemed vulnerable, having voted with the President down the line on a number of energy, agricultural, and economic issues.

The Democrats thought he could be painted as an accomplice in policies leading to the state's woes. They lined up Rep. James R. Jones to run against Nickles. Congressman Jones is a veteran of 14 years in the United States House of Representatives, former chairman of the House Budget Committee, and former top aide in the Johnson White House.

Since winning the Democratic primary in late August, Jones has slammed Senator Nickles's voting record and his ideological proximity to President Reagan. But Reagan's popularity in Oklahoma is at an all-time high, as it is elsewhere in the country. The majority of Oklahoma voters does not seem to have linked the President with their woes.

LaVerne Clark, a Nickles campaigner in the depressed agriculture and oil town of Alva puts it this way: ``It's not their fault; they're the only ones working to get us out of this mess.''

An assortment of polls shows Jones trailing Nickles by 10 to 30 percentage points. Nickles continues to dodge Jones's demand for a televised debate, and the Democratic candidate has been unable to rouse voter interest in the issue. ``Our message is that Oklahoma is going down the drain,'' says Jones. ``The only question is whether there is time enough between now and Tuesday to focus attention on that.''

If Jones fails, it will not be for lack of originality. He has launched one of the most inventive and, at times, deliberately amusing campaigns to be seen anywhere. The balding Jones took to the television waves with a hair dryer to emphasize the difference between his way of operating and the ``blow-dried'' style of Nickles, who has a full head of hair.

Jones's feud with Edward L. Gaylord, an Oklahoma publishing magnate, resulted in another ad in which Jones used a copy of Mr. Gaylord's flagship paper, the Daily Oklahoman, to line a bird cage holding a parrot.

This week, Jones displayed more inventiveness. In trying to get Nickles to debate, he launched a ``Where is Don Nickles hiding and why?'' contest, inviting citizens to phone-in tips about Nickles's whereabouts. The effort has yielded a few tips, and Jones has chased Nickles across the state with a pack of bloodhounds and a band of reporters, confronting him on the debate issue with both groups in tow.

Despite the novelty of the Jones campaign, Nickles has been able to set the tone of the race as a classic liberal-conservative clash, with Jones as the liberal. One Nickles advertisement lists a few of Jones's votes and presents a rural voter saying, ``You know, Jim, if you look like a liberal and act like a liberal and vote like a liberal, you are a liberal.''

There are substantive issues in the campaign: Nickles tells audiences about his efforts to deregulate oil and gas prices, repeal the oil windfall-profits tax, and push a proposal that would require banks to consider loan restructuring before foreclosing on farms and businesses. Jones says that Nickles has been ineffectual and blasts the senator for voting against a farm-foreclosure measure proposed by the state's other US senator, hugely popular Democrat David L. Boren.

But Nickles apparently has successfully cloaked himself in the mantle of Reagan's popularity.

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