By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — Those attending the state Republican Party Central Committee meeting and dinner in Keystone this weekend are guaranteed to hear about goals and positions of at least two of three GOP candidates who have emerged so far to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes will participate in a political forum and straw poll on Friday evening — without the third candidate, former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis.
This has given rise to much speculation that McInnis is boycotting the Keystone event — but he’ll be there on Saturday, a day after the candidates’ forum and straw polls. After all, what serious candidate would miss this opportunity to snare votes and campaign contributions?
“I think this is an appropriate time for Republican activists to decide the direction of the party,” said state GOP Chair Dick Wadhams. “This forum and poll don’t have to be divisive — and they won’t be.
“This is an opportunity for the candidates to talk about their visions and agenda for the future,” said Wadhams. “Why would anyone shy away from this opportunity?”
Apparently his thoughts are being echoed in McInnis’ campaign headquarters.
McInnis is scheduled to speak at the National Rifle Association in Colorado Springs on Friday night, but will arrive the next morning in Keystone to work the crowds in his favorite one-on-one style at the state GOP Central Committee.
In a forum limited to an opening comment and two-minute responses to a couple of questions, Penry and Maes will offer their solutions to the economic crisis facing the state.
The Republican candidates aim to convey what they would do differently than Ritter to resolve the budget crisis — if that’s possible in such a limited time — and to expound on their unique capabilities.
That budget question undoubtedly will catch up to McInnis during his visit on Saturday, when the candidates can again pitch their primary goals in speeches to the state GOP Central Committee.
So how do the candidates view this opportunity to bring the party faithful into their camps? What will their messages be? How are their campaigns shaping up?
“We’re very excited over this opportunity,” said Maes. “The forum gives us the opportunity to get in front of the Central Committee to pitch our ideas — and build my name ID.”
Maes said he intends to spend the weekend hammering home what sets him apart from McInnis and Penry.
“It’s the strong message that I have extensive, quantifiable business experience,” said Maes, who rates that much higher than his opponents’ legislative histories.
For Penry, the event and political forum offer a superb opportunity to reach hundreds of activists and leaders in the party.
“This event — along with seven upcoming forums and debates — is critical to allow Senator Penry to talk about the issues,” said Mike Britt, manager of Penry’s campaign and former state GOP executive director.
“We’re very excited about being in Keystone,” Britt enthused.
“Our willingness to meet with voters, listen to their concerns, discuss the issues and share Senator Penry’s views are important for the future of the state — not just the party,” Britt said.
Asked about Republican opponent McInnis’ recent comment in Colorado Springs that referenced Penry’s youth and inexperience, Britt said his candidate has a greater understanding of the issues facing Colorado than the former congressman does.
Penry served two years in the state House and is midway through his first four-year term in the state Senate. McInnis served in the state Legislature from 1983 to 1992, then served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
McInnis has repeatedly attacked Penry — particularly in Colorado Springs — for his vote in favor of a bill to thwart an effort by Fort Carson to expand its training ground in Piñon Canyon.
McInnis has argued that the bill — which Penry supported and which passed the state Legislature and was signed into law by Ritter — will impede the growth of Fort Carson. McInnis also has said it sends a negative message to the defense industry, which casts a big economic shadow from Pueblo to Boulder and beyond.
The U.S. Army has not abandoned its expansion plan, but it did cut funding for the proposed expansion this past year.
“(Penry) said his vote was about property rights — but it was not,” declared McInnis. “It was a stick in your face to the United States Army.”
The jab at Penry’s Piñon Canyon vote plays well in El Paso County, but it has not found a heartbeat — yet — in other sectors of Colorado.
“Leadership is defined by doing the hard things that achieve results. Senator Penry’s record speaks to balancing state budgets and dealing with issues that affect Coloradans, while Congressman McInnis’ experience has resulted in more debt, record deficits and countless earmarks,” said Britt
Although he won’t arrive in Keystone until Saturday, McInnis will be represented on Friday.
“A bunch of us on the campaign will be up there on Friday,” said Sean Duffy, communication director of McInnis’ U.S. Senate campaign.
“Scott will be up Saturday. He’ll talk to the state party Central Committee and then do what he does best — talking one-on-one with party activists and leaders,” said Duffy.
“He’s really looking forward to this opportunity — that’s how he’s won elections. He’s a retail politics candidate.”
There appears to be more to McInnis’ Friday absence than a scheduling conflict. Duffy said the McInnis campaign objects to the party sponsoring a political forum and straw poll for several reasons, which were conveyed in a letter to Wadhams.
“It’s too early for forums, debates and straw polls — the latter is a gift-wrapped present the Democrats,” declared Duffy. “We have a substantive disagreement over standing up before a firing squad at this early stage of the campaign.”
That said, Duffy predicted that activists will embrace McInnis as the strongest candidate because he offers, “experience, leadership and common sense solutions to get Colorado back on track.”
The Keystone weekend promises to be a Republican revival — if a bit rocky.