DENVER, AUG. 11 -- Carlos Lucero, dismissed just weeks ago as a certain loser in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination in Colorado, has revitalized his underdog campaign with the help of a president's son and a failed Denver savings and loan.
The 49-year-old attorney has been far outspent and out-organized by his opponent, Josie Heath. He cannot afford consultants, polls or television commercials. His campaign manager just turned 22 and was promoted in June from being his driver.
Although still trailing Heath by a significant margin going into Tuesday's primary, Lucero appears in newspaper polls to be faring better than his mismatched resources might suggest. A Denver Post survey, conducted with Denver television station KCNC and published in Sunday's editions, showed Heath leading 36 percent to 20 percent, with the rest undecided. The poll's margin of error is 4.5 percentage points either way.
Lucero's challenge is fueled by the fumes of scandal that surround the ruins of the bankrupt, high-flying Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan Association and its best-known director, President Bush's son, Neil. With the zeal of a crusading district attorney and armed with volunteer investigators, Lucero has been grabbing headlines and television time with his attacks on the "Silverado desperados."
His rallying cry: "I don't care who they are, I don't care if their father is the president of the United States -- if they did the crime, they're going to do the time."
"It has been a most unorthodox campaign," Lucero said as his red Jeep Cherokee rolled along farmland to the Adams County Fair and Rodeo in nearby Henderson, Colo. "It's become a cause."
The balloting may not only decide which Democrat will vie with Rep. Hank Brown (R) this fall to succeed Sen. William L. Armstrong (R), who is retiring. It could be an indication of the power of the savings and loan debacle as a political issue. It has been estimated that it will cost the federal government $300 billion to clean up the failed savings and loan industry nationwide.
By pounding away at Silverado, Lucero has struck a nerve in a state noted for clean-government attitudes, where the excesses of the energy boom of the 1970s that went bust in the 1980s are as evident as the half-empty skyscrapers that dot Denver's skyline.
Lucero, who narrowly lost the Democratic Senate nomination in 1984, talks about little else. It is the sole theme of his radio commercials.
"We're riding the S&L issue right now because that's what people are interested in," said campaign manager Dan Calisher.
That judgment was reinforced when Lucero arrived at the county fair. "I'm with you; go get those sons-of-guns," Mary Arnold, a sprightly 70-year-old Commerce City, Colo., resident told him as she finished last bites of her pancakes and sausage. "That thing stinks."
Other Colorado politicians are picking up on the S&L theme, too. Brown, who has no competition in the GOP primary, called this week for tighter federal regulation of thrifts.
Also this week, Gov. Roy Romer (D), who is running for reelection, called for a state grand jury to look into reports that a home builder with ties to Silverado made illegal contributions to campaigns, including his own. Romer gave $32,900 in Silverado-tainted donations to the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal agency overseeing the S&L cleanup. On Friday, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) called for a Federal Election Commission invesigation into the matter.
Lucero, a former director of a thrift in his hometown of Alamosa, has dubbed his investigators "The Untouchables," after the famed federal agents who fought organized crime in prohibition-era Chicago. They are led by Ed Graham, a Denver direct-marketing consultant who approached the campaign in search of a vehicle for pursuing the S&L scandal.
Although Denver newspapers have lately become more aggressive -- it was the Denver Post that broke the campaign contribution story -- it was the Lucero campaign that made some of the early disclosures in the Silverado scandal.
"He's not just getting the press; he's doing the investigative reporting," said Colorado poll-taker Paul Talmey, who is neutral in the race.
Heath, a 52-year-old former schoolteacher and Boulder County commissioner, complained that Lucero is a "Johnny-One-Note. . . . We need to elect people who have talked about the issues." The S&L scandal, she said, "ought not be trivialized by grabbing whatever is the political headline."
Heath was well-positioned to benefit from public outrage over the S&L mess with her suburban, good-government image.
But "Lucero took on the Silverado issue and made it his own," said Marshall Kaplan, dean of the University of Colorado at Denver's Graduate School of Public Affairs. "He captured a wave."
Now, the furor over Silverado all but drowns out Heath's discussions of environmental, education and health care policy.
This week, for instance, she used the turmoil in the Middle East to call for a national energy policy. The Denver Post reported it in a short story relegated to an inside page while the uproar over the campaign contribution scandal dominated page one.
On paper, this race should be no contest. Heath, the more polished of the two, has drawn on her long involvement in environmental and women's issues to develop a strong organization of workers commanded by campaign manager Susan Casey, who presided over Gary Hart's surprise victory over Walter F. Mondale in the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primary.
Lucero has a much more modest operation. Campaign manager Calisher is a novice who said his ambition is to go to law school. "I'm just a punk kid," he said with a self-deprecating shrug.
Further, Heath had raised more than three times as much money as Lucero and had nearly five times as much money in the bank by late last month. That has allowed her to air television commercials in the campaign's two closing weeks, while Lucero has been able to afford only radio advertising for the final five days.
While Lucero has captured the public's imagination, it is not clear whether that will bring victory in a primary election, when voter turnout is usually very low. It could be that Lucero's one-issue campaign appeals most to disaffected voters unlikely to go to the polls Tuesday and that Heath's organization will get more of her supporters to voting booths.
"I don't know if this is all going to translate into votes," Calisher said as he juggled telephone calls from reporters around the country. "But we're doing something right."