WASHINGTON — Jim Ryun became world famous for breaking the 4-minute mile as a high school track star.
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These days, the Lawrence, Kan., Republican has settled in for a marathon of sorts to win back his old seat in Congress from Democrat Nancy Boyda, who narrowly defeated the five-term incumbent in November.
More than a year before Boyda is up for re-election, Ryun is already on the campaign trail six or seven days a week, raising money and touting private polls that he says show him well ahead of his Republican primary challenger, State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins.
Early target list
But Jenkins has a less than admirable view of Ryun's latest bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat, which includes west Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan and much of southeast Kansas.
"Most of the comments I've heard is that it smacks of a desperate attempt to regain his D.C. lifestyle," Jenkins said in an interview. "And Kansans rejected that in November of 2006."
The early sniping between GOP candidates comes as Boyda finds herself near the top of a list of freshmen Democrats targeted for defeat.
Yet it was Jenkins who became an early focus of attack ads last month. The Washington-based anti-tax group Citizens Club for Growth spent $100,000 on television ads in the Topeka, Kansas City and Joplin markets depicting Jenkins as a serial tax hiker during her stint in the state Legislature.
Jenkins calls the ads an unfair distortion of her record and has accused Ryun of putting his "friends in Washington" up to buying them. The group and Ryun deny any coordination.
"Unfortunately, Lynn Jenkins began her campaign with a negative attack instead of addressing a pattern of raising taxes," said Ryun's campaign manager, Kyle Robertson.
Campaign efforts underway
Meanwhile, in May, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched a barrage of radio spots and automated phone calls in the district that accused Boyda of voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time.
In response, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ran TV ads praising Boyda for voting to raise the minimum wage.
Are Kansas voters ready for a nonstop election cycle?
"I think it's a little surprising, but maybe we ought to get used to it," said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. "I think the presidential race has shown that politics is beginning years earlier. It's only natural that it's going to hit these congressional races."
Beatty says there's a reason why political ads don't usually run this early: the odds of hitting voters is small and those who do watch are not likely to pay much attention.
Ryun has tried to stay above the fray, declining to address the negative ads. In an interview, he said he considered stepping away from politics after his defeat, but then heard a groundswell from constituents asking him to run again.
"What I will be focused on is lower taxes, affordable health care, making sure you eliminate the death tax and helping working families," he said in an interview.
While Ryun acknowledges he ran a lackluster campaign in 2006, he blames the loss on a lack of Republican voter turnout.
"You'll have a presidential year with a Republican nominee at the top," he says of the 2008 race. "I would think it should help."
Boyda has charged that Ryun offered poor constituent services when he was in office, a theme Jenkins also seems to be testing. While Jenkins has filed paperwork for her bid and has begun raising money, she says it will be awhile before she starts campaigning in earnest.
"I'm serving Kansans as their state treasurer," Jenkins said. "I think when you take care of business, politics take care of itself. And that's what Jim failed to realize and one of the reasons he lost."
Boyda has faced her own pressures. The NRCC launched an anti-Boyda blog shortly after her November victory and regularly castigates her votes in Congress. The group railed against her support for a measure that makes it easier for unions to gain members and said Boyda backed a Democratic spending budget bill that approves "the largest tax increase in American history."
GOP members of the Kansas congressional delegation, including Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, issued press releases in February that accused Boyda and other Democrats of trying to cut funding for the state's military bases.
The accusation stung and Boyda spent weeks debunking the claims. While base funding was less than what the Republican-led Congress had proposed, Congress adjourned last year without ever authorizing the money and it was Democrats who finally approved base funding this year.
"There wasn't a shred of truth to it at all," Boyda said. "I think people were really horrified that another member of Congress would attack me, but also do it without being truthful."
Boyda has declined to comment on her Republican challengers, saying she's too busy doing her job. She has, however, turned away offers of help from national Democratic Party officials for her next campaign, saying she plans to stay with the grassroots campaign strategy that brought her to Washington.
"The key for her is to remain the person she was when she ran," Beatty said.
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