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Republican Primary Largely Lackluster Affair

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A ``pig tussle'' in television commercials livened up an otherwise lackluster campaign for the Republican nomination for governor in Oklahoma.

Conservative U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, 56, is favored to lead a field of four GOP hopefuls in the July 25 primary. The only question seemed to be whether the seven-term congressman can get more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff.

Businessman Bob Sullivan, state Sen. James Williamson, both of Tulsa, and retired engineer Jim Evanoff of Mustang are the other candidates seeking their party's nomination to oppose Democratic incumbent Brad Henry.

If the Republican race has been relatively uneventful, the Democratic contest between Henry and Andrew M. Marr Jr. of Norman has been nonexistent. Henry is expected to win easily and will be favored in the general election. Marr, a retiree, got 4.6 percent of the vote when he ran for governor four years ago as a Republican.

It was Sullivan, 60, who initiated the ``pig tussle'' with television ads featuring actor Gailard Sartain behind a mask of Istook, talking about ``pork barrel'' spending by Congress in an effort to discredit Istook's record as a fiscal conservative. The ad ends with the sound of a pig grunting.

The ad drew criticism from some Republicans, who said it went too far by using the word, ``liberal,'' against Istook, who has a lifetime rating of 94 out of a possible 100 points from the American Conservative Union.

The GOP congressman, who has fought for a federal budget-balancing amendment, ran his own ``humorous'' ad displaying newspaper stories criticizing the Sullivan commercial. ``Come on Bob, Oklahomans know dishonesty is no laughing matter,'' a voice on the commercial says.

Another Sullivan ad featuring childhood chum Sartain also used a mask and accused Istook of voting against limiting civil lawsuits because he is an attorney. Istook replied that he had voted for lawsuit reform more than 60 times and for every such bill that has been signed by President Bush.

Williamson said his research showed there was merit in questioning Istook's commitment to lawsuit changes.

Republicans in the Legislature, including Williamson, have made civil lawsuit changes, commonly called ``tort reform,'' a major issue over the past several sessions.

Williamson also is an attorney but practices family law and says trial lawyers ``hate my guts'' because of his consistent record for limiting civil lawsuits.

Unlike four years ago, when Republican Congressman Steve Largent resigned from Congress for an ill-fated run for governor, Istook is finishing out his term, while limiting his time on the campaign trail.

Two weeks out from the election, an Istook spokesman said the congressman had taken part in seven forums in 100 days.

Judy Istook, the energetic wife of the congressman, has been on the campaign trail. She was featured in a television ad showing home movies of Istook playing with his children. The commercial sought to show Istook has a different side from the congressman people normally see discussing serious issues.

The Williamson and Sullivan camps have complained that Republican voters were not getting the information they need about the candidates because no televised debates were arranged.

Sullivan's strategy has been to position himself to the right of Istook on fiscal policies, advocating the elimination of the state income tax and coming out early for the so-called taxpayer bill of rights, known as TABOR, which would limit government spending to a combination of the growth of inflation and population.

It is Sullivan's first run for public office. An oil man, he was energy secretary under Republican Gov. Frank Keating, staying in that post for one year under Henry.

Istook initially said he favored the TABOR concept, but wanted to make sure it would not restrict the ability of the governor and Legislature to cut taxes. He later said he would vote for TABOR if it is on the ballot and would lead a drive for a different version if it fails to survive a constitutional challenge before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Sullivan also led an initiative petition drive to get a statewide vote on requiring that 65 percent of school appropriations go to the classroom. Opponents said that could hurt schools with usually high transportation costs and eliminate important personnel such as counselors and nurses.

The Tulsan's general pitch to voters was that he would bring put his business experience to work at the statehouse to eliminate waste and permit more tax cutting.

Williamson, who also is a TABOR supporter, said he has support in the Christian community because of his strong conservative record on social issues. In the Legislature, Williamson was a leader in the Senate in getting the right-to-work petition to a statewide vote. He also successfully sponsored a referendum for a constitutional gay marriage ban that was approved by 76 percent of Oklahoma voters.

On the tax issue, however, the Tulsa senator said eliminating the income tax under the present tax structure is not rational since the tax makes up more than a third of state revenues used to fund schools, roads and other vital services. He said it was feasible the tax could be lowered to 3 percent.

A former teacher and state House member, Williamson said he would increase funding for education, but demand accountability.

Istook said he can ``go as low as you can go'' in reducing the income tax and would demand more welfare reform. He also has a record as a social conservative, supporting prayer in schools and anti-abortion measures in Congress.

Istook is a former radio newsman who had an extensive public career before running for Congress in 1992. He previously was director of the state agency that regulates alcohol laws, was chairman of the Warr Acres City Council and served three terms as a state representative.
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