A few days ago, Edmund Sargus Jr., a young law student who talks of slaying dragons, predicted he would edge former U.S. representative Wayne L.Hays in Tuesday's six-way Democratic primary for Ohio's 99th District legislative seat.
"The race is now down to Hays and me," said Sargus, 24, whose combativeness and family name have made him a strong contender in the three-county eastern Ohio House contest.
But Hays, not giving an inch in his fight for a political comeback, was typically unimpressed by Sargus' boast.
"Sargus," Hays retorted, "is full of crap. He's going to finish third."
At 67, with the media granting him celebrity status iln what otherwise would be a routine primary race, Hays is determined to free himself from the political exile imposed by the Elizabeth Ray scandal in which it was disclosed that Hays kept Ray on a congrsssional payroll for two years with no duties other than to serve as his mistress.
And although the legislative seat offers him no hope of regaining the power and influence he once exercised on Capitol Hill, Hays could at least view a victory Tuesday as an act of forgiveness by the voters who kept him in Congress for 28 years until he resigned Sept.1, 1976.
And in seeking the nomination, the winning of which would be tantamount getting the seat in the heavily Democratic district, Hays says that he's driven by a sense of duty to his constituents. He has said that people with titles can accomplish more than people without titles.
To win that title. Hays has staged a round-the-clock campaign heavily reinforced by television, radio and newspaper ads that portray him as a "man of action."
Although his opponents are galled by tales of Hays' benevolence - "He has an uncanny knack for taking credit for the sun coming up." Snorts Sargus - Hays, on a typical campaign day, emerges as a champion of the people against the hated bureaucrats.
On a recent rainy morning, Hays sat behind his desk in a small circular office in the Citizens National Bank here, where he is board chairman, accepting vistors and phone calls from people with problems - coal miner with black lung disease; an elderly couple whose rent had been raised.
In turn, Hays raised hell about the rent to the party at the other end of the call, hung up and stared at a reporter. "That's ridiculous, for Christ sake. To have to pay that kind of rent!"
Moments later, he was in his rented car, the trunk filled with campaign signs and literature, crisscrossing the district for votes. At the Bellaire police station, he got a rousing welcome from several officers who kidded him about the Liz Ray episode and promised their support. One reminded a reporter that Hays had intervened when the Army had tried to send the patrolaman's twice-wounded brother-in-law back to combat a third time. "He's done a lot for Belmont County," said the policeman.
Outside the station, a coal miner whose back was broken in a mine accident many years ago, told Hays he would do anything to help. "Some old fogies are against him because of that sex thing," Joe Bonmer, the disabled miner said. "But I don't hold that against him."
Hays smiled with a bening disposition to his supporters. Back in the car, he seemed satisfied that his image of a ruthless, plain-spoken operative in Congress was a media concoction that could not be supported by the evidence on the streets of his district.
"I am not happy about what happened," Hays said of his recent past as he drove through the rain-soaked hills - the "back county" that sits serenely apart from the aging steel towns along the Ohio River. "I can't change it. I'm not out to get anybody. I am not trying to get even, although I know who the culprits are. But I do find it satisfying to be running again."
He does, however, have a quick answer for questions raised about his storied methods of gaining power by granting or withholding perquisites as chairman of the House Administration Committee "Baloney," he snaps. Or sometimes: "b - t."
That, too, is how his opponents have viewed Hays motives in the campaign. Sargus, son of a former state senator and nephew of a county commissioner, has accused Hays of the use of raw power by spending money from his old congressional fund to "buy the election." Sargus figures Hays will spend more than $20,000. Hay says it will be more like $10,000.
Another opponent, Bill Dematte, 24, a former aide to Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), is discouraged by the apparent public acceptance of Hays. Dematte, whose candidacy has been endorsed by Glenn laments about Hays. "He's never been given a clean bill of health in Washington. But he's been so good at public relations it's all been glossed over. Yet here's a politician who's been accused of misuse of taxpayers' money and an abuse of power."
Hays takes a paternalistic view of Dematte, calling him a "nice young man" who's only hurting himself by bringing up Hays' past.
"The only thing he's succeeded in doing is assuring himself of finishing fourth instead of second," Hays says.
Another contender, Belmont County Treasurer Joe Pappano, has attacked Hays for being "too old" and is predicting victory for himself. Hays says Pappano will finish second.
On his way back to his barn, where he has set up a campaign office across the road from his 103-year-old country home in Belmont County, Hays seems to set the context for his campaign to mobilize the faithful. He notes that an "old lady" had written him, pledging her support and adding: "Everybody is this town thinks I'm a sweet little old lady. Little do they know."
Hays got a laugh out of it but he was mostly interested in getting her vote.