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Istook wages uphill campaign for Oklahoma governor
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The script has not gone as planned for conservative Republican Ernest Istook, who is giving up a safe House seat and now finds himself in a lonely, uphill campaign for Oklahoma governor against a popular incumbent.

Istook, according to public opinion surveys, trails Democratic Gov. Brad Henry by as much as 30 percentage points as the Nov. 7 general election nears.

The 56-year-old attorney has encountered fundraising problems and had not aired a single television advertisement in the general election until this week, while Henry has waged a well-funded campaign and has aired a slew of slick commercials.

Istook has had to answer questions about disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Capitol Hill page scandal. He was bruised in a tough GOP primary in which a "Hee-Haw" comic donned a pig mask and made snorting noises in a commercial for a Republican challenger who said the seven-term congressman was a big spender.

Through it all, Henry, a folksy centrist who has gotten along well with Republicans, has been able to stay largely out of the fray, relying on a record that includes large tax cuts, made possible by a thriving oil economy.

He seldom even mentions his opponent by name, while Istook calls news conferences to criticize Henry on immigration and law and order issues and pounds the pavement in an attempt to campaign in all of Oklahoma's 77 counties.

"I would say that whoever talked Istook into running is probably in hiding right now," says Bob Darcy, Oklahoma State University political professor.

"Henry is pretty popular, but I think from Istook's point of view, the big problem is Republicans don't hate him. Henry's not a lightning rod that would cause Republicans to spend money just to keep the (Istook) campaign alive."

Henry planned a campaign costing up to $5 million and has raised an estimated $4.4 million to date. Istook had only $29,000 in cash in early August and has refused to say how much he has raised since, including his take from a fundraising event featuring presidential adviser Karl Rove.

Robert Shapiro, an expert on polling at Columbia University, said it will be difficult for Istook to make a serious run at a strong incumbent without a significant television effort. He said the visit by Rove "looks almost like a hail Mary sort of thing."

Istook's congressional colleagues for the most part have not been seen with him on the campaign trail.

On Aug. 24, Istook watched from the sidelines as Oklahoma's Republican senior senator, Jim Inhofe, was photographed presenting Henry with a plaque from the federal Department of Transportation after the state got a $16 million research project. Istook spoke briefly, saying he was proud to help get the funding.

Some top state Republicans considered challenging Henry this year, but looked at his 75 percent approval rating and thought better of it, including Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, now seeking to win the 5th Congressional District post Istook is vacating.

Istook, whose smooth baritone voice reflects an early job as a radio reporter, acknowledges that his campaign has been hampered by "distractions."

Early on, the congressman had to respond to news reports of ties to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to bribing public officials. "I barely knew the man," Istook told The Associated Press after he and his political action committee returned or gave to charity $29,000 in contributions from Abramoff or his clients.

His congressional campaign paid back $5,126 to Sports Suites LLC, an Abramoff company, for the use in 2003 of skyboxes by the congressman for an "American Idol" concert and a Washington Redskins NFL football team.

Istook unexpectedly had to spend more than $1 million to win the primary, dodging accusations from Tulsa businessman Bob Sullivan that he was part of the problem of overspending in Congress.

His latest distraction came when a deputy campaign manager from California left after the congressional page scandal broke. Jordan Edmund, the campaign aide, was interviewed by the FBI about suggestive text messages he may have received as a congressional page from ex-Florida Rep. Mark Foley.

Istook shrugs off his problems. "I'm undeterred by difficulties. I'm staying on message," he said in a recent campaign trip to Nowata, a small town in northeastern Oklahoma. He told merchants and restaurant diners there that, if elected, he would create more jobs than Henry.

Low on finances, his campaign has mostly consisted of walking main streets with his energetic wife, Judy, often arriving in town unannounced in a small sport utility vehicle.

Istook, who has advocated school prayer, speaks often of the importance of family values, and criticizes Henry for his support of the lottery, which was created last year after overwhelming voter approval.

On the campaign trail, even some supporters seem luke warm.

In a visit to the small town of Skiatook, Istook told a group he wants to fix state roads and create jobs.

Asked what he thought of Istook's program, Duane Boynton said: "I vote Republican, what can I say? But they (candidates) are all the same. They say the right things to begin with. They're all liars."

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