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Mob of Contenders To Vie for U.S. Seat

Eleven Seek Silvio Conte's District

By Yin Y. Nawaday

Somewhat like a cattle call for politicians new and old, the First District Race is attracting a herd of hopefuls of all shapes and sizes, with each of the candidates unable to score a significant victory and surge ahead in the polls.

Eight Democratic candidates and three Republican candidates are aiming for the April 30 primary which will determine who will have the right to vie for the coveted Congressional seat formerly held by the late Republican Silvio O. Conte.

According to Martin Linsky, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, one of the reasons for the unusually large candidate pool was Conte's 32-year lock on the seat. Political up-and-comers have wanted to run for the spot the past 20 years, he says, but were deterred by Conte's popularity and seeming political invulnerability.

Conte's death on Feb. 8 provides political hopefuls with an opportunity to take advantage of a "free shot," Linsky says. Candidates need not relinquish present offices to run in the least expensive and shortest race ever for a seat which promises longevity, he says.

Analysts say the contest will be relatively unaffected by issues, but will probably be won by organization and successful slogan advertising.

Although the hot topic of abortion was brought up during the first debate between the candidates last Thursday, Linsky maintains that issues will probably not be the deciding factor for most voters since all of the Democratic candidates have similar platforms.

"It's too early" to identify a Democratic frontrunner, he says, adding, "I think mostly this campaign is going to be won on organization." An effective theme or message will probably help, the adds.

Republican Donald Thurston is a first-time candidate for political office who has been endorsed by Conte's widow. Thurston has been trying to differentiate himself from the field by touting his economic credentials. He is the sole business executive in the field, he says.

According to Thurston's press representative, Beth Saulnier, "economic experience rather than a professional politician" will revive the district's plunging economy and cut its 12.6 percent unemployment rate.

The district consists of two parts, the economically troubled Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley, which holds three-fourths of the vote.

On the other hand, State Sen. Linda Melconian, a Democrat from West Springfield who moved into the district to run, has been pushing her political experience. Melconian's slogan is "We can't afford to send a rookie to Washington."

Melconian, whom some regard as a front-runner, is advertising her "insider" slant in a field of relative newcomers. "She can go in and be effective on day one," says campaign manager John Dellvolpe. Melconian is banking on her nine and one-half years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for former U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. and her 9-year stint as state senator.

But Linksy says he doubts Melconian's strategy will work. "Is that going to grab someone from Williamstown who knows [Democratic candidate] Sherwood Guernsey? I don't know." He points out that when Conte first won the seat he was a relative rookie to the political field.

The large pool "makes it difficult to get the message out," says Dellvolpe, who admitted that the majority of Melconian's campaign money has gone to advertising.

The candidate's planned warchests vary in size from less than $3000 to $250,000.

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