Whether or not the United States was wise in signing the Panama Canal treaties three years ago may sound like a moot question to most voters. But in conservative, traditionally Republican Idaho, where Sen. Frank Church, the man who led the fight congressional ratification of those treaties, now seeks his fifth term as US senator, the "giveaway" of the "American" canal -- as some call it -- is alive and well as a campaign issue.
Conservative GOP challenger Steven Symms and a presumably independent ABC (Anybody But Church) Committee based in Boise, the state capital, are making every effort to paint the Democratic incumbent as a big-government man associated with most federal programs coming out of Washington. They say his views on everything from the economy to foreign policy run counter to those of his constituents.
The Panama treaties, which the great majority of Idaho residents opposed, according to state polls, are singled out as a symbol. "They made people aware of how out touch he was," insists Symms campaign press spokesman Andrew Schirrmeister.
Senator Church, who ran a slim two points ahead of his opponent in a late September Idaho Statesman poll, meets the criticism with no apologies. Running on the theme "Idaho never had a better friend," he insists that everything he has done has helped the state he represents and that the path to progress in not to limit government but to make it benefit those it is designed to serve. He stresses that Congressman Symms, who has represented the western and northern regions of the state in Washington since 1972, has never sponsored a bill that passed on Capitol Hill.
In this rural potato-growing state of fewer than half a million voters, the candidates in this race are known to all as Frank and Steve. And in the end it could be their respective organizational talents, campaigning abilities, and records of service to constituents -- rather than their political policy views -- that sway voters Nov. 4.
"The personal touch is what really goes over best in this state," observes Dr. Rick Foster, professor of political science at Idaho State University.
Indeed, if Church should win, political analysts in the state say it will be due to his superior record of constituent service and the stature he brings to the state by his leadership and influence in Washington, where he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As the only Democrat among the state's congressional delegation, Church would win in spite of -- rather than because of -- his party ties.
Idaho voters are considered fiercely independent, and Ronald Reagan's strong 30-point lead in the polls here over President Carter is not expected to give Symms much of a coattail benefit. In fact, in the agricultural southeast, where many of the state's Mormons (who make up more than one- fourth of the population) live, many cars carry "Reagan/Church" bumper stickers.
Church, who is from Boise, has weathered some tough challenges. He was first elected to the Senate in 1956 despite a landslide victory for GOP presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower.In 1974, he was re-elected in spite of his unpopular dovish view on the Vietnam war.
Church is not so much a liberal that he does not bend to conservative views on some issues.He has long been adamantly against any form of gun control. He also was the first in Congress last fall to disclose and protest the presence of Soviet combat troops in Cuba, a move that has somewhat disarmed his opponent's charge that Church's performance on the Foreign Relations Committee has helped to weaken the US militarily.
Still, both candidates admit they face a tough fight. Each is spending well over $1 million on his campaign.
Looming large as an issue is a recently passed -- and Church-supported -- bill that sets aside 2.2 million acres in central Idaho, including a section with cobalt mining potential, as a wilderness area. Symms, who supported a compromise bill for a small area, charges that the one passed will hinder growth of the state's economy and cost Idaho 10,000 jobs, mainly in logging. Church terms that charge "ridiculous" and insists that the move will help the economy, bringing greater lumber sales and more jobs, and is in the best interests of all residents.
"We see it as a strong political plus; it's our issue," insists Church press spokesman Cleve Corlett.
Even so, Symms has gained the support of five local unions affected by the change. And he fared well in the traditionally Democratic northern and central counties of the state's "panhandle" in his last (1978) election campaign.
Symms, an outgoing and personable candidate whose family is in the orchard business, began his political career as a philosophical libertarian. Now considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, he holds views on inflation and tax policy that closely parallel those of Mr. Reagan.