Roberts-Watkins Match Goes Right Down to the Wire

Article excerpt

It's tricky dance for Wes Watkins as he seeks to become the first Republican elected to Congress from Oklahoma's 3rd Congressional District in 88 years.

On the one hand, Watkins plays down his switch to the Republican Party in a district that includes the heavily Democratic southeast area of the state known as Little Dixie. On the other hand, he cites GOP pledges of a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee as a reason for the change.

"He's trying to have it both ways," says state Sen. Darryl Roberts of Ardmore, who is trying to keep the district in the Democratic fold, as it has been since 1908. Watkins, who represented the district for 14 years as a Democrat, was considered a strong frontrunner early. But by all accounts, the race is tight going into the home stretch. A poll taken for The Tulsa World and released a month before the election indicated a dead heat, with each candidate getting 46 percent of the vote. The turnout will likely be critical and a large vote could help Roberts, since President Clinton carried the 3rd District four years ago and is favored again. The district remains 3-1 Democratic in registration, but Watkins points to recent elections in which some counties voted Republican in statewide races -- most recently in 1994 for Sen. Jim Inhofe. As he has in past campaigns, Watkins has based his campaign on his personal appeal. A prolific handshaker, he plays up his small-town roots and rise from poverty. "He's one of us," his television commercials proclaim. Roberts' commercials spotlight headlines of Watkins' discussions with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and end with Watkins being morphed into Gingrich. The voice-over says Watkins "says he's one of us, but he looks like one of them." Watkins rejects Roberts' charge that he is an opportunist, saying he would be elected in a cakewalk if he ran as a Democrat. "My only goal is economic development, to get jobs for the people of the 3rd District," he says. Both candidates vow to protect Medicare and Social Security, but Roberts argues that Watkins will be influenced by Gingrich, the architect of budget cuts he said "would leave 3rd District voters behind. …