- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

DENVER — Jack Abramoff may be in prison, but the disgraced lobbyist’s past involvement with this year’s Colorado Senate candidates has triggered the campaign’s first dust-up.

Republican candidate Bob Schaffer has come under fire for a 1999 fact-finding trip he took as a congressman to the North Mariana Islands courtesy of the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), which received funding from other Abramoff clients.

Meanwhile, Democratic hopeful Rep. Mark Udall agreed last week to donate to charity $1,500 in contributions made to his congressional campaigns in 2000 and 2002 by two law firms that employed Abramoff.

Both campaigns spent last week attempting to tar the other in what could be a harbinger of the Abramoff factor’s effect on the 2008 race.

“This was Schaffer being a tool, frankly, in this overall strategy mapped out by Abramoff,” Udall spokeswoman Taylor West said. “[Schaffer] was up to his neck in it.”

Meanwhile, Dick Wadhams, Mr. Schaffer’s campaign manager, said voters should follow the money.

“Mark Udall did accept contributions from Jack Abramoff’s law firms,” said Mr. Wadhams. “If Bob Schaffer was such a pawn of Abramoff, why didn’t he get any contributions from Abramoff?”

A resurgence of the Abramoff issue would be unwelcome news for many candidates, especially Republicans. His conviction on corruption charges in January 2006 contributed to a Republican election-year meltdown as Democrats rode the sleaze factor to register significant Senate and House gains.

A Republican activist, Abramoff contributed through his clients, primarily Indian tribes, to both Republican and Democratic candidates, but it was mainly Republican officials and aides who were caught up in the ensuing corruption investigation.

Still, whether the Abramoff issue can pack a punch with voters two years after his conviction is far from certain, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said.

“This was a huge story in the last election cycle. It got a few congressmen defeated and put at least one in jail,” said Mr. Ciruli. “I’m not sure what its salience is now. For Schaffer, this took place, what, eight years ago? More than that,” he said.

“It’s an issue,” he said. “But whether it’s an issue that changes the dynamic of the campaign? I’d be surprised.”

At the same time, he said, don’t be shocked if ads linking the candidates to Abramoff start popping up as Nov. 4 draws nearer. The rivals are seeking to replace retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard in what is viewed as a pivotal race for both parties.

“Scandal and arguments over who contributed to who are meat and potatoes for these campaigns,” Mr. Ciruli said.

Mr. Schaffer, a former congressman from Fort Collins who left office in 2002 after keeping his term-limit pledge, said he had never met or heard of Abramoff when he took the 1999 trip.

“Abramoff in 1999 was not an infamous name yet. I don’t think the crimes for which he was punished had occurred yet,” Mr. Schaffer said.

He said his purpose in going to the islands was to investigate reports of sweatshop conditions and forced abortions. During the five-day trip, he said, his party — which included his wife, a staff member and TVC head Lou Sheldon — toured at least nine garment plants and interviewed dozens of factory workers, managers and church leaders.

He said he also went parasailing after extending his departure time by a few hours on the last day. A photo showing him on the boat was circulated last week by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Udall campaign accused him of carrying out the Abramoff “game plan” by trying to impeach the credibility of witnesses to factory abuses during a later committee hearing on the issue, but Mr. Schaffer argued that he presented a balanced view of the island’s factory conditions.

Mr. Udall, a five-term congressman from Boulder, received contributions from Preston Gates & Ellis and from Greenberg Traurig during Abramoff’s tenure with those firms.

The Schaffer campaign accused him of changing his votes on Internet-gambling bills after the contributions stopped. Ms. West said there was no link between the votes and the donations, adding that Mr. Udall had connections to the firms that were unrelated to Abramoff.

She accused the Schaffer campaign of trying to defend itself with the moral-equivalence strategy.

“One thing the other side is trying desperately to do with this controversy is have people say, ‘Oh, the web of Abramoff touched everyone,’ ” Ms. West said. “It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s more like apples and wheelbarrows.”

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