Friday, September 29, 2006

Otter dodges and weaves on simple issue

Idaho's Butch Otter is giving up a seat in Congress to come home and, he devoutly hopes, become governor.

His main campaign assets seem to be that he's likeable, sports the image of a down-home cowboy and is more or less a Republican conservative. What's lacking, however, is a trait valued by voters: unwavering conviction.

Remote as the subject may be to some voters, the issue of raising and hunting penned elk is now dominating Otter's race with Democratic candidate Jerry Brady.

True to the caricature of the blowhard politician who wants to be all things to all people, Otter is on both sides of this dispute—he's against hunting elk in a controlled, fenced area, and he's not against it enough to support a ban.

To the Idaho Sportsman's Caucus, Otter wrote: "Yes, I would (support a ban)."

"Dramatic new controls" are needed, he added. But then his campaign issued a statement saying, "My position has never been to seek their closure."

Then, confirming his all-things-to-all-people wavering, "I would support the Legislature if it came to that conclusion (banning elk hunts in enclosures)."

Meanwhile, Brady is foursquare against the pay-to-hunt elk ranches that have raised such a furor since elk escaped from one near Rexburg threatening the health of wild herds, and the ranch's killing operations were explained to the uninformed.

This episode in Idaho is eerily similar to the ruckus stirred up with the 1970s film "Bless the Beasts and Children," from the 1970 book authored by novelist Glendon Swarthout, now deceased, about buffalo slaughtered in Arizona corrals by urban cowboys.

The book and the film prompted Arizona legislators to outlaw the inhumane slaughter of buffalo in corrals for "hunters" who paid to kneel and shoot caged buffaloes. Even at that, some shooters had such poor aim that Fish and Game officers had to kill the wounded animals.

The larger issue in Idaho beyond elk, however, is whether Otter has the character and fortitude to make and stick with positions unpalatable to some voters.

As one of the fast-growing states, Idaho can't afford political leaders who get through life on good ol' boy charm. Tough decisions involving the environment, state finances, public schools, urban crime and the unexpected demand a governor of vision who can lead from conviction and the ability to persuade.

Otter's wavering position on as simple a matter as slaughter at elk ranches indicates he may lack the basic stuff Idahoans expect in a chief executive.

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