By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
KEYSTONE — “We ought to embrace competition,” Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams told Republicans gathered at the state party Central Committee meeting in the Keystone Lodge last weekend.
And that’s just what he got as the sea of hopefuls for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate swelled to 10.
“Hi, I’m candidate number 32 for the U.S. Senate,” joked Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck as he introduced himself to the party faithful.
Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton was the candidate who won the most votes in Central Committee’s Friday night straw poll — capturing 119 of 344 votes.
“I’m humbled by your support,” Norton told the Republicans. “You are the backbone of this party.”
The poll results were gratifying for Norton, but they weren’t the big bear hug some of her supporters had anticipated.
A whopping 68 percent of the ballots were cast for other candidates. Of those, 55 percent went to Buck and Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who each snared 94 votes.
The straw poll was taken after a dinner and candidates’ forum on Friday, Sept. 25. Candidates who had registered with the Federal Election Committee had been invited to participate. All candidates — declared and undeclared — were invited to speak at the state GOP Central Committee meeting on the following day.
Although the poll isn’t scientific, it served as a measure of the popularity of candidates among statewide activists. These leaders don’t just vote — they turn out other Republican voters, so the results separated Norton, Buck and Frazier from the rest of the pack.
Third place in the poll — with 12 votes apiece — went to newcomer Luke Korkowski, of Crested Butte, and former 6th District Congressman Tom Tancredo, who hasn’t entered the race.
Korkowski, a relative unknown, delivered a decidedly edgy message that drew applause and raves.
“We must insist that our president, our senators and our congressmen adhere to and be bound by the text of the United States Constitution,” declared the young attorney, who likens his views to those of Republican Texas Sen. Ron Paul.
Had federal lawmakers abided by the Constitution, Korkowski said, Americans would not be drowning in an $11.4 trillion national debt and facing a projected $1.58 trillion deficit for the full 2009 fiscal year.
“If government didn’t fund unconstitutional programs,” he said, “we could do away with the income tax.”
Six ballots were cast for Gary Kennedy, of Mancos, four for Cleve Tidwell, of Denver, and one each for Vincent Martinez, of Denver, Stephen Barton, of Penrose, and former state Sen. Tom Wiens, of Douglas County.
Barton and Wiens were ineligible to participate in the Friday night forum. Barton, however, spoke at the Central Committee meeting. Dr. Robert Greenheck, of Aurora, who has declared his candidacy, did not attend the weekend event.
Although Wiens has said he plans to launch his U.S. Senate campaign next month, his absence at the Keystone meeting, combined with his poor showing in the straw poll, spurred speculation that the former state senator might not run. Wiens told The Colorado Statesman last week that he’s committed to the campaign and is working with political consultants, including Frank Luntz, a pollster who appears on Fox News.
During the forum, each candidate was allotted three minutes for an opening statement and two minutes to answer questions. Wadhams posed the questions, which were often spiked with wit and jabs at the Democrats.
For example, Wadhams delivered the following question in melodramatic tones:
“Colorado Democrats have a grudge match for their party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate featuring ‘The Jilted One,’ Andrew Romanoff, who was passed over three times by Gov. Bill Ritter for major appointments — secretary of state, U.S. senator and lieutenant governor — and now has a vendetta against Bill Ritter and the person he appointed, ‘The Accidental Senator,’ Michael Bennet, who, despite growing up in the salons of Washington, D.C., and being educated at the elite and exclusive St. Albans School, seems unable to grasp the job — even to the point of seeking permission from liberal New York Sen. Charles Schumer on how to vote.
“Why are you the best candidate to defeat whoever emerges from the great Democratic grudge match?”
The Republicans exploded with laughter and applause.
On this particular question, rather than offering serious responses, a couple of the GOP candidates competed for the most clever comeback.
“The reason I can go head-to-head with either (Bennet or Romanoff) is because I’m not in this race because I need a job,” declared Frazier.
Buck spun a similar job-security joke.
“I don’t to worry about the next client walking through the door. The police bring me plenty of clients,” said Buck, who’s serving his second term as Weld County district attorney.
“I sort of feel like I’m in real estate a lot of the time, folks. I just provide a gated community for a lot of our…” Buck’s words were muffled by the audience’s applause and hysterical laughter.
The candidates found a consensus in their shared goals to balance the federal budget, reduce the size of government and revitalize the economy to create jobs.
A question about the debate over the Democrats’ proposed health care reform bill generated numerous “no to Obamacare” responses from the candidates.
Tidwell said, “I oppose Obamacare — it’s socialized medicine.”
Korkowski said that the costs of health care plans continue to rise and coverage goes down because of the layers of administrative bureaucracy.
The Colorado Statesman
“Kick ’em out! If we kick ’em out, health care costs will come down,” said Korkowski, adding that health care and tort reform should be addressed at the state — rather than the federal — level.
Norton said that health insurance is not affordable and not accessible to everyone.
“We need to be for choice and competition,” said Norton, who opposed “dismantling the health care system for 15 percent of the people” who don’t have coverage.
Norton, Frazier, Buck and Kennedy said that the costs would decrease if Coloradans could purchase plans from out-of-state health care coverage providers. They also supported expanding tax credits for the costs of health care coverage — which now are granted to large corporations and businesses — to small enterprises and individuals.
More divergent views emerged when Wadhams asked if the United States should send more troops into Afghanistan. The majority of candidates said it should, but Korkowski and Martinez disagreed.
Frazier, Buck, Tidwell, Kennedy and Norton favored upping the troops and stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq to protect the country and the world.
“Do we want to fight Islamic terrorism over there — or do we want to fight it here?” asked Buck. “I say we take them on over there.”
Buck added, however, that he would oppose any president who tried to usurp the constitutional power of Congress to declare war.
“I believe in the surge,” said Norton, who reasoned that “we need to have a stable Afghanistan. It’s in the best interest of our country.”
Korkowski said if the country were in sound economic health, he might favor increasing the troops — but the current economic crisis is a greater threat to national security.
“If we increase our debt any further, we are further accelerating the destruction of our own country,” he declared.
Martinez said the United States has seen no results after investing eight years of fighting in Afghanistan and six years in Iraq. He advocated troop withdrawal.
“In my opinion, the United States cannot achieve peace in the Middle East,” said Martinez, adding that it would require negotiations and agreement among all countries in the region.
The candidates all focused on highlighting their strengths.
Frazier said his “core values are honor, courage and commitment.”
Buck vowed to do what’s right for the country. “I know that enforcing the law means doing what’s right — it’s not a matter of convenience, comfort or economy,” he said.
Norton defined her candidacy as “pro-small business and entrepreneurship, pro-marriage, pro-life, pro-individual, pro-conservation and pro-Colorado.”
Norton’s pro-Colorado stance might be tested by some Republicans who question how closely tied her campaign is to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The NRSC secured a Web site for Norton’s campaign — but she has since assured grassroots supporters that the committee won’t influence the Republican Colorado U.S. Senate race.
Yet, it was reported earlier this week that 48 hours after she left the Keystone event, Norton was the guest of honor at a fundraiser in Washington hosted by NRSC players.
Ah, but Bennet also has the image of being too closely aligned with powerful folks in Washington. Of course, President Obama’s endorsement of Bennet would be hard for Norton — or any other Republican — to top.