Ernest Istook Hits Streets In Search Of Votes

Sunday, October 15th 2006, 12:20 pm
By: News On 6

SKIATOOK, Okla. (AP) _ Republican Ernest Istook, dressed in a windbreaker and khaki slacks, jaunts quickly between Mac's Barbecue and Ron's Hamburgers on a cool October day, trying to catch noontime diners to tell them why they should vote for him for governor.

The veteran Republican congressman, his brown shoes scuffed from brushing street curbs, is trying to make up ground on Democratic incumbent Brad Henry the old-fashioned way with long days of personal campaigning.

Public opinion polls have showed Istook trailing the popular incumbent by as much as 30 percentage points, but Istook has had a good week, featuring a fundraising visit by presidential adviser Karl Rove, and talks optimistically about his chances under an afternoon sun outside a drug store in Nowata.

People are ``just beginning to pay attention'' to the race with just over four weeks left to the Nov. 7 general election, he says. ``I think we are getting the traction. I really do.''

Istook began his day hours before sunrise, heading to Ponca City in north-central Oklahoma for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast. He covered hundreds of miles in his small sport utility vehicle as he traveled eastward to Pawnee, Skiatook, Nowata and on to Vinita in far northeastern Oklahoma before a nighttime forum in Claremore and a return to Oklahoma City.

The congressman is being heavily outspent by Henry, who has run five different television ads for the general election to none so far for Istook, who has had trouble fundraising and has been saying for weeks that his TV ads will begin ``soon.''

In the meantime, he makes it a point during his travels to stop by radio stations and newspapers to create publicity.

Unlike Henry, who does not mention Istook unless asked to do so, Istook is on the attack as he talks to voters, trying to cut into Henry's popularity rating, as much as 75 percent in some surveys.

His main message is that he wants to create jobs to keep Oklahoma's young people in the state. He says Oklahoma's economy is not a strong as state revenue figures indicate, warning the economy is propped up by high oil and natural gas prices.

He points to companies who have left or are leaving the state, such as General Motors and Dayton Tire Co. in Oklahoma City.

He accuses Henry of ``weak leadership'' and says he will bring more jobs to the state by fixing roads, cutting more taxes and helping local governments with their infrastructure needs such as water and treatment plants.

``If you look behind oil and gas right now, things are not really growing,'' he says, while giving Henry little credit for signing two straight record tax cuts.

Henry has touted increases in education funding, but Istook tells diners at Mac's that if Oklahoma provides students a good education ``and they can't get good jobs, then we're just a training ground for Texas and other states.''

He also talks a lot about illegal immigration and how the flow of Hispanics into the state is hurting Oklahoma workers.

That strikes a responsive chord with blue-collar diners in Skiatook. ``We need to get them out of here,'' says one man.

Don Fielden, owner of a business that frames houses, tells Istook he is ``losing a lot of bids'' because he does not hire illegal immigrants and has to pay workers' compensation and other costs his competitors are not paying on Hispanics. He said no one seems to be addressing that problem.

Istook has criticized Henry for signing a bill that has helped a few dozen immigrants to obtain tuition aid if they are working toward legal status.

Henry has said illegal immigration is mainly a federal problem that Congress has failed to address for decades.

Istook, a seven-term congressman, told Fielden he has worked hard on the immigration problem, but ``I've been one voice out of hundreds in Washington.''

Istook stresses family values, his strong anti-abortion stand and his belief that voter-approved lottery and gaming proposals are not good for the state.

He gets nods of agreement from Allen Miller. ``You have my support,'' says Miller, who calls himself a ``very religious'' Baptist who voted for Republican former Congressman Steve Largent, loser to Henry in 2002.

Before leaving Skiatook, Istook visits a music store and tells 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.''

At the Depot Cafe in Nowata, Gavin Van Winkle also seemed cynical after shaking Istook's hand and quickly returning to his meal. He said he did not know how he would vote. ``I'll just flip a coin. It doesn't seem to make a difference. I won't know until election day.''

Rod Pendley asked Istook why turnpike fees continue after construction costs are paid. Istook said he favors making such turnpikes ``a free road'' to Oklahoma residents.

In Bartlesville, a city of about 35,000 located 47 miles north of Tulsa, Istook got a friendly welcome from Charlie Daniels, school board member and husband of Mayor Julie Daniels.

``Good luck to you,'' says Mike Murphy as he and his wife, Susan, get into their car. Murphy said he will vote for Istook, saying he supported him when Istook's 5th Congressional District used to stretch from Oklahoma City to near the Kansas line, taking in Bartlesville, a GOP stronghold.

Denzil Garrison, a former Republican state senator and gubernatorial candidate from Bartlesville, joined the small group at a hot dog stand.

Istook says the campaign is going well. ``Getting ready to go up on TV,'' he says.

``Is that boy over there Stephen Jones' client?'' asks Garrison about Ben Cox, Istook's driver.

``No sir,'' Istook says.

``Kind of looks like him. Don't tell him I said so,'' says Garrison, who is known for his wry sense of humor.

``I wouldn't wish that on anybody,'' says Istook.

Jones, an Enid attorney, is representing Jordan Edmund, Istook's former deputy campaign manager, who was interviewed by the FBI about suggestive text messages Edmund may have received as a congressional page from disgraced ex-Congressman Mark Foley.