Olympic Hero Jim Ryan Sprints To Finish in Kansas Political Race

Former Olympian Jim Ryan is running again, but this time the prize is a seat in the US House of Representatives and the contenders are fellow Republicans who see Mr. Ryan not as way out front but simply as way out.

In his first run for political office, the Kansas hero-turned-politician has staked out the conservative side of the GOP field in the race for the state's Second District. As he kicks into high gear for the primary next Tuesday, the outcome will show how well his messages on abortion and morality play with voters here in America's heartland.

The contest also illustrates the schism that has developed between moderates and conservatives in the Kansas Republican Party.

"This is clearly a battle over the direction of the Republican Party in Kansas," says Douglas Wright, a Topeka lawyer and former city mayor who's up against Ryan in the race.

A third GOP candidate, Cheryl Brown Henderson, has virtually no political base and very little money, but many political observers say she will take some of the moderate Republican votes from Mr. Wright, perhaps giving Ryan the edge going into the primary.

A three-time US Olympic team member, Ryan was a silver medalist in the 1,500 meters in the 1968 Games. Before that, in Wichita in 1965, he became the first American high schooler to break the 4-minute mile, and his time still stands as a national high school record.

Since leaving competitive running, Ryan has operated a summer running camp and been a motivational speaker for corporations and Christian groups around the country, and written two books.

Ryan's campaign emphasizes conservative, family values, and he has talked about the need for a "renaissance of traditional morality." Opposed to legalized abortion, he says he doubts he could support any exceptions, even in cases of rape or incest.

His position draws fire from Wright and Ms. Brown Henderson. "Mr. Ryan and the radical Republicans must realize while they control a limited number of official party positions, they do not control the party," she says. "If Republican male candidates are going to appeal to Republican and unaffiliated women in November 1996, we'd better get our act together. The GOP cannot put a Band-Aid on the abortion debate and hope it will go away."

Wright, also an abortion-rights defender, is even more caustic in his criticism of Ryan. He doesn't mince words about what he thinks will happen if he and Brown Henderson split the moderate vote, giving Ryan the primary victory.

"I don't think Jim Ryan can win in November. John Frieden [the Democratic candidate] would love to run against Jim Ryan. He's told me that," Wright says. "He'll get all the Democratic votes and some Republican votes from people who just don't want someone that extreme representing them in Washington."

Wright also said the musical chairs this summer with Kansas Republicans retiring or seeking higher office does have voters a bit confused. "I'm not sure they all know who's running for what."

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