. -- Mike Taylor says he can see it in people's eyes -- the embarrassment, the lingering questions, his life reduced to tabloid fodder. But if he achieves nothing else, Taylor is barnstorming across snowy Montana in his quixotic campaign for the Senate with a unique message: He is not a crooked gay hairstylist.
That's hard to put on a bumper sticker. But there it is. Campaign 2002.
The Republican state senator finds himself on a two-week, 63-city "Countdown to Decency" bus tour because of a television attack ad aired by the Democratic Party. It showed video clips of Taylor dressed in a vested leisure suit, circa 1980, that made him look like an extra from "Saturday Night Fever."
Neatly bearded, with a shirt unbuttoned to his breastbone, his hairy chest dangled with gold chains, Taylor looked ready to dance under the glittering disco ball at Studio 54.
But that's not what flipped Taylor out. No, looking like John Travolta isn't the problem. "My wife said I looked pretty cool," says the toothy and bespectacled Taylor, who two decades and 30 pounds later looks more like a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Wilford Brimley.
What made Taylor drop out of the race against Sen. Max Baucus (D) and then return 12 days later is what he was doing in the video clip. He was giving another man -- who looks not unlike Tom Selleck's little brother -- a facial. With a powder puff.
Then: A voiceover pronounces Taylor a hair-care scammer who bilked the federal government out of financial aid money from students attending his Michael Taylor Institute of Hair Designs in Denver.
Cowpokes, this is Montana. Big Sky Country. Pickup trucks and gun racks. Ranchers and miners and lumberjacks. Where even liberal Democrats brag about the elk they bag. Macho, macho men.
"Pictures are worth a thousand words," Taylor says after he waded into the Dixie Inn north of Great Falls to shake hands and pronounce himself 100 percent behind the Second Amendment. (His bumper sticker reads "Taylor for Gun Rights.")
"So, why did they pick a clip showing me massaging a guy's face?" Taylor says. "I think you know why they did it, and I think I know why they did it."
Because it made the grandson of a barber appear to be a gay hairdresser? "Like one of the Village People," Taylor says.
At the end of the bar at the Dixie Inn, filled with locals in denim and hunters in camouflage fleeing the snow, a supporter put it this way: "What they did to you, man, was really wrong."
Riding across the state in his GOP-sponsored RV, Taylor is asked whether he would have dropped out and then returned to the stump to campaign for decency and civility if the ad had shown him cutting a woman's hair.
"No, probably not," Taylor says.
Taylor, 61, concedes the attack ad was, in its way, for its purposes, as brilliant as it was defaming.
In a mere 30 seconds, it made a subject of ridicule out of Taylor, a self-made millionaire high school graduate -- married and the father of two (one son a lawyer, the other a post-9/11 Army recruit) -- who built his fortune on beauty care products and selling lamb chops from his ranches. It was like looking at someone's high school yearbook photo.
"Then it attacked my record as a businessman, of which I am proud," Taylor says. But what really goaded him was the facial, a clip from Taylor's "Beauty Corner" segments, which ran on a noon-hour news and fluff show aired in Denver.
Baucus and his campaign deny any knowledge about the TV spot, which was created and paid for by the state and national Democratic Party.
As Taylor sees it, he withdrew from the race because of the ad and "to make a stand."
The system, he believes, is out of whack. People, even men who once upon a time favored leisure suits and gold chains, now won't run for higher office, fearful of "skeletons in the closet."
At his surprise news conference, on Oct. 10, Taylor appeared beside his wife, Janna. Choking back tears, he said, "There's no question about it, what they're trying to imply. They're trying to say that every barber and every cosmetologist, every manicurist or anybody in the beauty and hair fashion industry is homosexual."
Democratic Party leaders say baloney. The facial, a spokesman said, was the only clip they could find. The point of the ad was to highlight Taylor's hair-care scam.
Bunk, Taylor says. "I did that show for three years, and almost everyone were women getting makeovers."
"It's totally factual. It's totally accurate," Baucus told reporters.
To which Taylor replies: "The beauty schools must have had $10 million or $15 million in student loans over the years." The Education Department said he owed the federal government about $158,000, and Taylor says he settled for about $25,000. Bookkeeping errors, that's all, Taylor says. "It was a finding, not a criminal indictment." But he was forced to close his Michael Taylor Institute of Hair Designs.
In the days after he withdrew from the race, Taylor said he received hundreds of calls and letters of support. So he got back in again, "to make a stand."
"I went home and I prayed -- for my family, my friends and for all the people of Montana who were hurt by the slander and suggestions about me," Taylor said at a news conference announcing his return to the race Oct. 22. "The message, then, became clear. . . . If I must go down, it should be in a good cause."
Nonsense, say the Democrats, who have labeled Taylor a flake and a quitter. They said his withdrawal and return were publicity stunts for a floundering campaign. Taylor was never close to Baucus in the polls.
"I think most people think Mike Taylor is pretty goofy for dropping out based on our ad," said Bob Ream, Montana Democratic Party chairman. "He dropped out because he didn't have enough money."
Ream called Taylor's campaign the "Hypocrisy Bus Tour."
"He's gotten attention, but I don't think it's the attention he wanted," Ream said. "Max's [poll] numbers continue to increase. He's running full page ads saying, 'Shame on You, Max.' "
Ream defended the use of the beauty school commercial, saying Taylor committed infractions while running the school. "The violations are violations."
"We stopped all of our ads within hours of his dropping out. We even chased down mail trucks to get the fliers. We retrieved all of them except for a few," Ream said. The fliers showed a Phyllis Diller-type in orange hair and repeated the hair-scam charges.
Reaction from outside of Montana has been mostly muted. "Sadly enough, in a state like Montana, it is helping. Playing an anti-gay card still works there," said Richard Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay rights organization.
"Had it been a Republican that had done it, there would be press conferences, there would be an outcry and it would be the end of the world," Tafel added. "In politics, people do what works, but what is striking is the Democratic gay community has been so quiet about it. I think they see themselves as part of the Democratic team and therefore can't criticize."
Interestingly enough, as Taylor works his way down the quiet Main Streets of small-town Montana, the shopkeepers and shoppers he stops to greet do not mention the ads.
Mostly, they ask about taxes, education, the economy, guns, environmentalists and health care, issues pushed to the background by the circus of charge and countercharge between the campaigns.
"Maybe they're also just being polite," Taylor says. Meaning: How would you ask him about the leisure suit and massage? Which is exactly the point, Taylor says. "They put it out there and then withdraw. But it's there, and I know people are still thinking about it."
So is Mike Taylor. He is considering making the Bee Gees hit "Staying Alive" his campaign theme song.
Special Correspondent Kimberly Edds contributed to this report from Los Angeles.