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The Elephant in the Room 

Can a Mormon Harvard professor out-cowboy Butch Otter?

click to enlarge Keith Allred (left) and Butch Otter
  • Keith Allred (left) and Butch Otter

The imagery in the race for Idaho governor is as rugged and spectacular as the state itself. Call up either campaign site — either for incumbent Republican Butch Otter, or for Democratic challenger Keith Allred — and you will see veritable herds of horses, a brimful of cowboy hats, and enough shotguns and fly rods to outfit a sporting party swollen to Teddy Roosevelt proportions.

Taking a cue from Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick’s success at winning the Idaho 1st Congressional District seat in 2008, Allred is branding himself as a moderate — even right-leaning — Democrat as he challenges Otter, a long-time Republican power player in state politics.

Otter has served two terms in the Idaho state House, has a record four terms as lieutenant governor and was a three-term congressman from the 1st District before making a successful run for governor in 2006.

Allred is a fifth-generation Idahoan who graduated from Stanford and then went on to teach at Columbia University and later at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

But the first thing mentioned under the “Meet Keith Allred” tab on his website? “Keith grew up working summers on his Grandpa’s cattle ranch.”

The slideshow of photographs rotating in the background as you read this nugget includes Allred in a cowboy hat and chaps on horseback coiling a lariat. Another shows him with a shotgun slung across his shoulder.

Otter, at 67, still competes in the team roping event in various Idaho rodeos. He was 15 points ahead of Allred in the most recent statewide poll (Sept. 21).

But uneasy lies the head that wears the Stetson: The poll also showed that 44 percent of potential voters had a negative impression of Otter and that 20 percent remain undecided about the race.

Also, Otter is the rare Republican governor who has had trouble pushing his agenda through the nearly all-GOP Idaho Legislature. He has been scorched by fellow Republicans for proposing hikes in the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration fees in order to pay for fixing state roads. Otter’s also been pounded for making unprecedented cuts of $128 million from the state’s public schools in the fiscal year that started in July. The cuts could go even deeper in 2012.

Otter defends the cuts as ugly but necessary in dire budget times.

“Education is where 52 percent of our money is, K-through-12. [During the last two years,] we’ve cut all the other agencies an average of 17 percent. We hadn’t cut education at all. When we had this additional downturn, we had to go where the money is,” Otter told The Inlander in mid-January.

Allred spokesman Shea Anderson says that “governors before Otter, who have seen even tougher [economic] times, have not cut school funding.”

One of the first tenets of the state Constitution is to maintain public education, Anderson says. The Allred campaign contends that Otter ordered the cuts despite the state’s economist having projected an extra $80 million in available revenues and a state Tax Commission report showing that Idaho had $255 million in uncollected taxes.

Anderson criticizes Otter as “shoot first, think later.” He cites the education cuts, Otter’s cheerful support of oil company megaloads using the federally designated Wild and Scenic Highway 12 (a full year before the public knew what was afoot), and last week’s surprise announcement during a debate with Allred that a new contractor to process the state’s Medicaid claims was dropping up to 200 dentists for “overproviding.”

Otter has been criticized for being out of touch with the people in all three instances.

Allred has been touting heavyweight members of the state GOP who announced support for him, including former state Sens. Laird Noh and Judi Danielson and retired Ada County Sheriff Vaughn Killeen.

The ads touched a nerve: Allred was quickly ordered last week to remove the Republican Party’s elephant logo from the Republicans for Allred website.

In addition to former statehouse leaders, Allred has gained the support of Sharon Parry, who ran Otter’s 2006 campaign in Bonneville County. Christine Crawford (author of Mommie Dearest and daughter of actress Joan Crawford), a Democrat, also announced support for Allred even though Otter appointed her to fill a vacancy on the Benewah County Commission.

As the campaign winds down, Otter is traveling the state on the GOP Bus Tour. It cruises through North Idaho on Friday and Saturday, ending up at the University of Idaho Kibbie Dome for the Vandals’ homecoming game.

Next week, Allred has events scheduled only in southeastern Idaho, where his Mormon faith has attracted strong support.

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