Pretend for a moment you're Wayne Owens.

You're 25 points up in the polls with a month left in your U.S. House race, you have three times the money your opponent has and you've spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars in free mailing privileges the past year advertising how great you are to your constituents.You're feeling pretty good, right?


Owens political career, I believe, hangs by a thread. He's facing his toughest race ever in the 2nd Congressional District. And if he loses, it will likely end his political career, for certainly the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature won't redraw 2nd District boundaries for the 1992 election with an eye toward favoring Owens.

Why should Owens feel such concern?

First, he's a Democrat in a district that is 2-1 Republican. He's won and held his congressional seat by getting Republicans and independents to vote for him.

He's a faithful member of the LDS Church who has drawn 70 percent of the non-Mormon vote. He's a man who has drawn more than 50 percent of the women's vote.

But now he's being challenged by an articulate, non-Mormon female Republican - Genevieve Atwood.

Demographically, it's the worst thing that could happen to him.

"Genevieve cuts to the very heart of his constituency," says Bud Scruggs, Republican chief of staff to Gov. Norm Bangerter and a former GOP campaign consultant.

Let me digress here for a moment. Some have criticized this newspaper and other media for referring to the religion of the 2nd District candidates. Normally, a candidate's religion is not mentioned. But in this race, Atwood has actually made a point of saying she is not a member of the LDS Church. She mentions it in public gatherings, and she spoke to it as some length in her 15 minute video she distributed to the press and public before the primary.

Owens, also, doesn't shrink from letting people know that he is Mormon and that he served as a mission president for his church. In fact, when he re-entered politics in 1984 - an unsuccessful run for the governor's office - at most of the public meetings I attended Owens would introduce someone in the audience and casually mention that the person or a relative to the person served in the mission field with him. He still makes such comments, although not as frequently.

In short, these two candidates interject religion into their campaigns, although both do it tastefully.

Add to the statistical concerns in Owens' race, a general uneasiness among the Utah electorate - the uncertainty of the economy, the threat of U.S. troops dying in a Persian Gulf war, the disaster with the federal budget and deficits - and some political gurus are saying running as an incumbent may not be such an advantage. The incumbency still holds great power, of course. Maybe not just as much, they say.

After all, fewer than a dozen U.S. House members who sought re-election in 1998 were defeated. More died in office the past two years than were voted out.

But troubled waters are out there, and Owens is in the middle of them.

True, Atwood is being outspent 3-1 by Owens. But now that she's won the GOP nomination more financial aid will be flowing to her.

And she has considerable personal assets to drawn upon the final days. She's already lent her campaign $100,000 from assets she valued at more than $700,000 in a financial filing with the U.S. House. And she can legally give more to her campaign.

Considering that the federal budget and the Persian Gulf are grabbing all the headlines these days, it's possible that voters won't focus on the Nov. 6 election until two weeks or so before election day.

If Atwood can compete in those final days with paid TV, radio and newspaper advertising, mass mailings, etc., Owens' large financial advantage could be neutralized.

It's always better to be ahead than behind, so Owens has some solace. But Owens was ahead of Jake Garn in their 1974 U.S. Senate race, only to see the lead dwindle, then vanish several days before the election. His thoughts no doubt wander back to that race, as he hopes it won't happen again.