Some local reporters tell about the time an aide for Rep. Howard Nielson came around asking them off the record why the congressman doesn't seem to come across very well in news reports.

What the reply was sometimes gets lost in the retelling. But the general consensus is that Nielson, R-Utah, lacks not only any kind of memorable public image, but - cynics would say, strangely for a congressman - also lacks any interest in cultivating one."I'm a work horse, not a show horse," Nielson is fond of saying of himself. In fact, it is perhaps this lack of a public image that actually has become Nielson's image.

One rarely sees Nielson's name in headlines or his face on television. Even his friends say he doesn't have much of a sense of humor. As an editorial in one newspaper pointed out recently, Nielson is in no way an eloquent public speaker.

His three previous campaigns for Utah's 3rd District U.S. House of Representatives seat have been low-key and low-budget. He apparently lacks the skills, and perhaps the desire, necessary to generate favorable news media exposure, as the story about his aide illustrates.

In short, Nielson appears to lack many of the elements that Americans have come to believe a politician must have to be popular with voters.

And yet over the six years of his U.S. House tenure, he has on election day consistently been Utah's most popular congressman. He has never received less than 70 percent of the 3rd District vote and appears to be on his way to winning a fourth term in November.

Why?

Those who know Nielson say it's because his dedication and hard work win out over the fluff and puffery of public image so often associated with politics and politicians these days.

"Howard's not a bit colorful, and he has a low humor quotient, but he's smart as hell. . . ," said Vaun Cox, vice president for public affairs at Questar Corp., a former Democratic state representative and a longtime Nielson friend.

"He's not a public speaker, and he can't tell stories well, but then he's not in show business. The people on his committee respect him because he's always there, but people on the Washington party circuit wonder who . . . he is because they never see him."

Rep. Jim Hansen, Nielson's GOP colleague in Utah's House delegation, admits he sometimes urges Nielson to promote himself more.

"I've told him he needs to call people up more and tell them what he's doing, but Howard just does not work at getting himself in the press like many congressmen do, and I admire him for that," Hansen said.

"He'll sit in committee hearings for hours, and he's respected by people on both sides of the aisle for his knowledge on issues. He does his homework and always knows exactly what he's voting on and why he's voting as he is."

Nielson also has a reputation for honesty.

"He's a marvelous numbers man, a statistical and mathematical genius," Cox said. "Once in the early '70s the Democrats controlled the state House, where Howard was serving at the time. Utah House districts were in need of reapportionment, and there's probably no more difficult task in government.

"Well, the Democratic leadership turned the whole project over to Howard, a Republican. He did it and they adopted his plan with one or two minor changes. I don't think he could have received a bigger vote of confidence."

Bob Stringham

Bob Stringham is not a man to back away from a challenge. In fact, he's more likely to jump in with both feet.

That's illustrated by the retired steelworker's campaign to be the Democratic nominee in Utah's 3rd Congressional District, which if successful would pair him in November against three-term Republican incumbent Rep. Howard Nielson.

But Stringham finds Nielson's Election Day record - never sweeping past a 3rd District Democratic opponent by less than 2-to-1 - undaunting. He and state Democratic Party leaders point to public opinion polls they say show Nielson is vulnerable.

"This is the year Howard Nielson can be beaten, and I'm the guy who can do it," said Stringham, who ironically as a local United Steelworkers union official has worked closely with Nielson on steel issues.

But Stringham's first campaign for public office is not a case of political opportunism, his friends say. Rather, it's more an outgrowth of his years of political and community involvement.

He's been active as a volunteer in political campaigns since 1976. He's worked for community service organizations like Utah Issues, Utahns Against Hunger, United Way of Utah County, Santa's Helper, the United Steelworkers Community Service Committee and been a volunteer counselor to drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs.

Stringham also served as a union representative on the Geneva Advisory Board, a public-private cooperative group organized to assist a restart of the Geneva Steel plant after a labor dispute closed the plant in 1986.

He held various union positions and was the financial secretary of USWA Local 2701 in Orem prior to his retirement last year.

Some politicos say Stringham's organized labor ties would hurt him with 3rd District voters, should he get the nomination. But Stringham remains proud of his union background, which he credits with helping him to gain much of the experience he feels now qualifies him to run for public office.

He's proud also of his activism in the Democratic Party, which led him last year to challenge for the chairmanship of the Utah County party despite his opponent's backing from the local party hierarchy.

"We're better organized than we've ever been, perhaps better organized than the state party," said LaVon Laursen, the Utah County party's vice chairman and candidate for the Utah House in District 58.

Stringham's propensity to take on challenges showed in his decision not to go back to work at Geneva Steel when the plant reopened last year. Instead he and a business partner elected to retire from the steel mill and go into business for themselves with a fledgling management consulting firm they had organized during the year the plant was closed.

"Getting started was tough," said Allan Jeffs, Stringham's business partner. "We had no customers, we had to learn the legal stuff, find out what resources were available and sell ourselves. . . . We took time to evaluate, check and recheck, and eventually it all came together."

Recently Stringham took a further challenge - selling out his interest in their firm to Jeffs so he can campaign for Congress full time.

Craig Oliver

Maybe only the most hopeful of optimists could find an advantage in being trounced by more than a 2-to-1 ratio at the hands of a political opponent.

But Craig Oliver says his drubbing two years ago by Sen. Jake Garn was good experience that will serve him well during his current campaign for the Democratic nomination in Utah's 3rd Congressional District.

Oliver got just 30 percent of the vote against Garn. But he's counting on name recognition and his reputation as a hard-working, issue-oriented campaigner, built during that Senate race, to help him now.

His 1986 campaign experience, which included a Democratic primary victory over former state Sen. Terry Williams, will give him an edge over his current intraparty rival, Bob Stringham, Utah County Democratic Party chairman, Oliver said.

"Look what we did two years ago, starting with no name recognition," Oliver said. "We educated the people on the issues, and we ran a good campaign. Unfortunately, it was probably so low-key that most people didn't notice."

Oliver's 1986 race was necessarily low-key - he raised just $20,000 in campaign contributions. Campaign funding is likely to be in short supply again this year, especially during the intraparty battle when potential contributors will wait to see the 3rd District Democratic nominee chosen before they donate.

But Oliver insists a lack of contributions won't bother him.

"Money is important, but it's not the lifeblood of a campaign," he said. "I proved that two years ago when we ran on almost no money, just on issues and hard work. We got 30 percent of the vote against a popular incumbent. And Howard Nielson (the incumbent) is not Jake Garn."

But Oliver isn't forgetting he first has an intraparty fight on his hands. He also isn't forgetting that state party leaders gave him scant encouragement when he indicated interest in the 3rd District race despite the presence of another Democrat recruited to challenge Nielson.

"I'm looking at it as a race to June, to the state convention," Oliver said. "I think it's healthy to have intraparty battles. It brings out the issues. I've always been against party leaders picking candidates. Voters should do that. It should be an open process."

Although recent polls show Oliver running neck and neck with Stringham, with 70 percent of 3rd District Demos undecided between the pair, Oliver clearly prefers to cast himself as an underdog, as a political outsider.

"Congress today does not represent the average Joe," he said. "I'm a working guy. I used to be a construction worker, now I'm in real estate. My wife is a waitress. I'm in touch with the real world where real people live. I don't think Howard Nielson is."

But despite his image, Oliver isn't interested in proving anything through a futile effort like his Senate race. He's in this campaign to win, although he plans to enjoy himself while running.

"I wouldn't be in this if Nielson couldn't be beat. I'm not interested in beating my head against a wall. It'll be fun whatever happens."