That’s the case for Dave Buhler, anyway. He’s trailing by 18 percentage points behind Ralph Becker. He’s hanging on to his anti-Rocky “reasonable guy and bridge builder” image from the primary campaign. But he’s sharpening its edges with just a smidge of razor wire.
Buhler billboards are now sporting slogans like this one at the downtown intersection of 300 West and 600 South: “Underdog vs. blueprintman. Doer vs. dreamer. Vote for the reasonable guy.”
“As the underdog, I’ve got to point out key differences between us,” Buhler says. “I think my latest approach sums up the two of us. We’re both nice guys. We’re both fairly reasonable. We’re not even that different on most city issues.
“Where we really differ is, I’m a doer, and he’s a dreamer.”
Becker says he’s keeping to his strategy of walking every city neighborhood, with added presence on the west side. “We’ve certainly prepared ourselves for the attacks Dave is mounting,” he says. “He’s come out swinging. I’m trying to be prepared and to make sure I respond when he distorts my record.”
It’s the most clever campaign strategy out there right now. Becker holds such a commanding lead, he need not massage his media strategy much for the final election. Unless, that is, Buhler continues to needle him and call him out, which is what any good underdog must do to count.
Buhler’s media brain is Tom Love, president of Love Communications in Salt Lake City. Expect his guy to keep pulling off the gloves, Love says.
“We’re coming out with a new announcement every week, which means five or six concrete proposals before the election,” Love says. Buhler favors construction of a new public safety building downtown, which voters will decide to fund or not on Nov. 6. Buhler has called for security cameras to increase safety in crime-ridden Pioneer Park. Becker considers the surveillance a privacy invasion and opposes them.
“Cameras can work in getting rid of the drug problem in the park,” Buhler says. “Ralph’s position of protecting privacy in this case is weak.
Buhler, who is about to give up his seat on the Salt Lake City Council, is also jumping on what he perceives as state legislator Becker’s major weaknesses: a poor record in passing his own bills on the Hill and an urban planner’s drive to analyze issues to death.
Call it “analysis paralysis.”
So, before it all ends on Nov. 6, Salt Lake voters may well see Nice Guy morph into Slice Guy—demanding Becker defend a record that his liberal constituency simply accepts as pure. “The only effective way to run this campaign is to point out Ralph’s weaknesses,” Buhler says. “It’s not negative campaigning. To work, my criticisms have to be credible and true. I think they are both.”
On Oct. 12, Buhler shot at Becker for backing the construction of a new natural history museum in the foothills behind the University of Utah’s Research Park. Becker’s urban planning and design group, Bear West, was paid to conduct the environmental impact study of the project—which does not necessarily imply endorsement.
Buhler says he opposes all building above the Bonneville Shoreline Trail—a key difference between him and Becker.
In this case, Buhler argues, the planner isn’t even planning right.
Becker was tweaked enough to fire back with a press release, claiming his “bewilderment” that Buhler attacked him on the same day Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against global warming.
Finally, most seasoned political analysts say that turnout on the voucher issue will play a key role in the mayor’s race. A small turnout benefits Becker because the city’s progressives are adamant about voting counter Utah’s conservative culture.
But if conservative, and presumably pro-voucher voters, show up en masse, they could also vote for Buhler. Even though he, like Becker, opposes the voucher referendum.
“[Vouchers] is a provocative issue,” says veteran political pollster Dan Jones, “and it’s one of the rare times a referendum will attract more people than a municipal election. Of course, it will depend on which side in the voucher debate gets its people out, but pro-voucher people could make the mayor’s race more interesting by voting for Buhler.”