The regulars who drifted into the Buffalo Grill for a hamburger or the luncheon special, chicken
fried steak, hadn't heard of Republican strategist Ed Rollins. Nor did they care about any national trends Washington pundits see in the race to fill Dick Cheney's House seat.To them, it's just a choice between two Wyoming politicians.
As good as any Gallup poll, owner-cook Gary Matz stood in the doorway of the grill's kitchen and nodded toward a couple eating the luncheon special.
"Strong Republican," he said. Chalk up two votes for Craig Thomas. Another patron, he said, is for Democrat John Vinich.
In this town of 282 people, two grain elevators, a hotel, the grill, a couple of stores, a garage and the Chugwater Chili Co., Matz has a pretty good sense of his patrons' politics. "Strong Republican" covers most.
Without the benefit of a Matz in every community scattered across the nation's most sparsely populated state, the two campaigns are doing their own daily polling. As the campaign headed toward the balloting Wednesday, a slight trend toward Thomas was turning up.
"We're showing everything just about dead even right now," said Howard Schloss, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. When asked if there was any movement, Schloss conceded, "A little bit away from us."
John Buckley, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said their polling shows "the numbers are widening up a little bit" in favor of Thomas.
Yet national GOP officials remained markedly nervous about the special election to fill the only House seat in this state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3 to 2.
A GOP loss would be the third in a month and the second in which the Democrats capture a House seat held by a Republican. First the Democrats took Dan Quayle's old House seat in Indiana and then easily beat back a GOP effort to turn the tables in Alabama. The special election losses have been a political cold shower for a party still celebrating its fifth victory in the last six presidential elections.
And when President Bush created another vacancy by naming Cheney secretary of defense, the Democrats had a campaign-hardened candidate ready to compete for the seat in this Western state.
Vinich, a 38-year-old state senator, came within 1,300 votes of upsetting Republican Sen. Malcolm Wallop last November, an effort that gave the Democrat a big edge in name recognition over Thomas.
" `Nearly beat Malcolm Wallop' comes out like one word every time they mention him (Vinich)," lamented Thomas, 55. "Here's a guy who's been running for a year and a half."
Enter Rollins, the million-dollar consultant hired by House Republicans frustrated by the fact they hold 17 fewer seats than they did when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Given a four-year contract and a mandate to reverse GOP fortunes, Rollins saw his first two races end in defeat.
"Wyoming is something I've had hands on since day one," he said.
That handed Vinich a perfect issue in a state where meddling by outsiders, particularly from Washington, is resented.
Then the national GOP committee commissioned a poll, asking voters if they'd change their opinion of Vinich if they knew there was a third person - a Washington consultant - in the car when the candidate was involved in a traffic accident.
State police said only two people were in the car. Democrats, with some relish, denounced the question as "gutter politics."
With his Washington friends, Thomas was looking like he had no need of enemies. "It was an unnecessary nuisance," he said, "and I'm mad about it and fed up with it." The GOP candidate said he'd held "a seminar" with Rollins to make it clear who was in charge of the campaign.
Thomas struck back against Vinich, with his own charges of outside influence, focusing on contributions to the Democrat from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Seafarers Union.
Among the ranchers and small businessmen in Wyoming, union is a dirty word. The state has a right-to-work law and Thomas contended Vinich would like to repeal it.
Back at the Buffalo Grill, Gary Matz said he's an independent and a conservative. But he intends to vote for Vinich because "Thomas says agriculture isn't important," a line that comes straight from a Vinich ad that Thomas has denounced as false.