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Against the Current

Will "Sharkboy" end up sleeping with the fishes?

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Who was a bigger bastard, JFK or Nixon? Nixon, of course. But there I was a few weeks ago in the Duquesne Club, surrounded by pictures of old Republican white men, arguing with a young Republican white boy, who said JFK's callousness toward Jackie proved Kennedy was a bigger bastard. I'd just read Anthony Summers' account of Nixon, The Arrogance of Power, which included allegations of drunken wife-beating. I'll take cheating over beating every time.

But my opponent was no ordinary white boy. This was Kent "Sharkboy" Gates, the Republican campaign manager who successfully ran the campaigns of Sen. Arlen Specter in 1998, County Executive Jim Roddey in 1999, and Attorney General Mike Fisher in 2000. He's running Roddey's re-election campaign this year & but the boy who swims political ponds aiming to produce blood in the water is in trouble.

Gates is 32 and was a mere 27 when he ran Specter's campaign. Then, as now, he develops an encyclopedic knowledge of his opponent's foibles, real or perceived, and can spit them out, machine-gun style, on demand. He'll relentlessly spread a rumor until it develops a whiff of legitimacy. The "little son-of-a-bitch," as '99 Roddey opponent Coroner Cyril Wecht's team used to call him, got his "Sharkboy" nickname from me, after he appeared on my talk show and I noticed his propensity to go for the jugular. Plus he kinda looks like a shark.

Where do Republicans find these nasty little SOBs? Blame Ronald Reagan: His hypnotic charisma indoctrinated a generation of future sharp-tongued political hatchetmen. Gates fell in love with Reagan during the '80 campaign, when he was 10. He still has his prized Gipper scrapbook, although unlike his hero, Gates is pro-choice.   But after Gates' early trifecta of election wins, he and Fisher ran smack-dab into a steamroller named Fast Eddie Rendell, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and a charismatic, consummate political pro. Gates was merciless as always, pestering his opponent to release his tax returns, which Rendell did late in the campaign. But alas, there was no smoking gun for Sharkboy. And now, instead of moving onto bigger and better things, he returns to his old stomping grounds in search of past glory and career resurrection. Again he represents Jim Roddey, but this time his opponent is Ward Cleaver.

OK, it's not really Ward Cleaver, but county Controller Dan Onorato -- the eternally earnest North Sider and family man -- is pretty damn close.

Back in the good old days of 1999, Sharkboy had oodles of material to work with. During the Republican primary, he was among those responsible for the legendary TV ad in which Larry Dunn was seen nodding out at a public appearance. For good measure they slow-mo'd the video, producing a gopher-on-Quaaludes quality. Who wants a gopher on Quaaludes running the county? Dr. Wecht, meanwhile, wielded a sometimes abrasive, damn-the-torpedoes style. He may have personally pissed off enough residents to provide Roddey's margin of victory. There was a treasure trove of poison-pen letters written by the good Doctor to those who got him angry. Your opponent doesn't normally hand you this kind of stuff on a silver platter.

Now all Gates has to work with is Onorato's supposed relative youth and inexperience. Watergate it ain't. Compounding Sharkboy's dilemma is the fact that some taxpayers blame Roddey for what they regard as the property-tax fiasco. Others believe Roddey has been competent, but nothing special. And Democratic registration still far outnumbers that of Republicans in Allegheny County.

Unlike Larry Dunn, Onorato stays awake in public. As county controller, he's got a great platform from which to rail against government waste, and a team of auditors to find it. There's no one selling cocaine out of his office. He's Mister Clean.

What's a Sharkboy to do? Mr. Roddey is still a good campaigner, charismatic, glib, and has raised a ton of money. But I'm predicting Onorato in a squeaker.

For Gates, this one's for all the marbles. He can be the golden boy who had a bump in the road, or the has-been with a serious losing streak who may need a career change. That could mean death for the Sharkboy. Because as we all know, if a shark stops swimming, it dies. I think I know someone who'd be happy to do the autopsy.

The columnist is host of NightTalk with John McIntire, appearing weeknights at 9 p.m. on PCNC.

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