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GOP-tea party marriage: For better or worse

Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck addresses a small crowd during a rally where three prominent Republicans show their support including Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-CO) at Clement Park in Littleton, Colo., Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

Colorado Republicans are hosting a campaign tea party this fall, for better or worse.

Or maybe for better and worse, in a jarring demonstration of the potential and peril generated by a political movement responsible for reshaping the 2010 election season.

One statewide nominee, Ken Buck, won the primary with the support of tea party activists and is a modest favorite to defeat appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. He enjoys the full backing of the Republican Party, and the groups aligned with it are pouring millions into television ads to help him.

The other, Dan Maes, went into a political nosedive soon after his surprise victory in the gubernatorial primary and has yet to recover. His personal credibility challenged, he’s been labeled an embarrassment by the state party chairman and overshadowed by a third-party contender.

Tea party activists in Colorado “provided much of the passion for the primaries on Aug. 10,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster. At the same time, “they have changed what it means to be conservative” with their eagerness to recommend changes to Social Security and calls for shuttering federal departments.

That willingness, in turn, nourishes a Democratic strategy of labeling Buck and others as extremists, part of a nationwide strategy aimed at persuading voters to look past economic woes when voting this fall.

The same grass-roots passion that propelled two tea party contenders in Colorado has left a mark elsewhere, with similarly uncertain results for Nov. 2.

In Kentucky, Republicans quickly made peace with Rand Paul after he defeated an establishment-backed nominee in the Senate primary. But the race is tight in the public polls, and party officials have worried for months that the first-time candidate may prove too controversial or undisciplined to prevail.

In Arizona, Jesse Kelly surprised the GOP leadership by winning the nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Despite the potentially competitive nature of the seat, Republicans have yet to launch the type of costly ad campaign they are running in dozens of other districts.

In Maine, a state represented by two of the Senate’s most moderate Republicans, gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage steers a more conservative fiscal course and occasionally stirs the kind of controversy they avoid. Polls depict an unpredictable multicandidate race a little more than two weeks before Election Day.

In Colorado, Maes put his conservatism on display over the summer when he said a Denver bike-sharing program was part of a “greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.”

A political novice, he won the gubernatorial nomination when the campaign of a better-known rival, former Rep. Scott McInnis, collapsed in a plagiarism controversy.

Before he could pivot to the fall campaign against Denver’s Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper, Maes struggled to answer questions about his resume. He claims that he was fired by the police department in Liberal, Kan., in the 1980s because police and politicians were corrupt and that he worked undercover for state investigators. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation denies he worked for them.

Maes must contend with a late entry into the race, former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration running as a candidate of the American Constitution Party.

Dick Wadhams, the GOP state party chairman, described Maes in an interview as “the worst candidate in Colorado history we’ve ever had for governor and one of the most polarizing.”

Tancredo and Maes met recently amid talk they would both withdraw, a move that would have permitted state Republican leaders to anoint former Rep. Bob Beauprez as the gubernatorial candidate for the campaign’s final month.

In the end, there were no withdrawals, and the effect on the party’s chances was clear at a recent debate in Denver.

“Republican for Tancredo,” read a hand-lettered sign that Gene Hogan, a Denver-area retiree, wore across his back as he waited for the event to begin.

Marv Calkins, 53, a resident of the Denver suburb of Aurora, said he cast a ballot for Maes in the primary but now is drawn to Tancredo because of his stand on immigration. Asked about his earlier vote, he shrugged and said, “It’s always the lesser of the evils.”

With polls suggesting Maes could finish third, Tancredo reserved most of his debate criticism for the front-runner Hickenlooper.

He accused the mayor of presiding over a “sanctuary city,” where illegal immigrants are sheltered from the full effects of the law, an accusation Hickenlooper denied.

Like Maes, Buck won the Senate nomination in an upset. But unlike him, he began the general election campaign with a lead in the polls over Bennet and quickly unified the party.

Bennet’s campaign prepared an 11-page compilation of his past statements that is designed to make him out to be a political extremist. Strikingly, it makes no mention of jobs, despite the importance of the issue in a state with 8.2 percent unemployment.

Buck shrugs off such attempts to define him, saying in a brief interview that most Coloradans view the tea party as a “citizens movement” and not a threat.

Like tea party-backed candidates in other states, he has softened some positions in an attempt to blunt Democratic charges.

During the primary, he supported a so-called Personhood Amendment backed by anti-abortion groups that would grant constitutional rights at the moment of conception. Now he says he won’t take a position on the ballot question, which opponents argue could outlaw widely used forms of birth control.

Behind narrowly in most public polls, Bennet’s chances of winning a full term appear to hinge largely on his ability to attract the support of suburban women who favor abortion rights, including Republicans and independents, who might vote Democratic in a better economy.

As a result, his campaign has tried to benefit politically from the claims of a woman who says Buck once refused to prosecute a case in which she said she had been raped. Instead, he told her the jury might have seen it as a case of “buyer’s remorse,” she says.

For his part, Buck put his political skills on display at a recent debate.

When both men declared support for individual elements of the health care legislation, Bennet jabbed that “until the very end, Ken Buck was almost for the health reform bill.”

Buck favors repeal of the measure that Bennet voted for, and his comeback went to the heart of the tea party appeal and the Republican reach for control of Congress.

“Yeah, but I didn’t agree with the other 2,400 pages and the 16 tax increases,” he said as Bennet stood by.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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