By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
WESTMINSTER — The campaign trail in the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination is beginning to feel like a well-worn path.
In an extended candidate forum held Saturday at a Westminster recreation center, GOP gubernatorial candidates Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, Evergreen businessman Dan Maes and a stand-in for former congressman Scott McInnis delivered talking points that would sound familiar to anyone who has heard more than one round of speeches.
Penry, the Senate minority leader, said he would bring a new brand of Republican politics to the Capitol. Maes highlighted his business experience, saying Colorado would benefit by having a true executive in charge of the executive branch. John Zakhem, general counsel for McInnis — who was on the Western Slope attending the 10th anniversary celebration of the dedication of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — said it’s crucial for Coloradans to elect a governor with experience.
They all agreed that the weak economy is the state’s biggest single problem.
In most previous candidate forums, each candidate delivered a three- to five-minute speech, then sat down. The Westminster forum focused instead on audience questions covering a broad range of topics, including education reform, the proper role of candidate debates in determining the candidate and the importance of social issues in the GOP.
To debate or not to debate?
Penry and Maes have seen each other often during the past few weeks. They both attended many open candidate forums in the metro area and also butted heads at a political forum and straw poll held at the state Republican Party Central Committee meeting and dinner in Keystone last month. McInnis, on the other hand, chose not to attend many of the same forums.
McInnis did agree to attend future forums being held by the Colorado Christian University, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry and the Southeast Business Partnership — but only after the groups agreed to his campaign’s terms, which included a ban on debates with Penry.
“What we are concerned about is what has happened to Republicans time and time again, in that you have primaries, and the person who is behind — or, in Penry’s case, a lot behind — gets out the elephant gun and tears the leader apart,” McInnis campaign spokesman Sean Duffy told The Colorado Statesman on Tuesday. “We want to have constructive and robust forums aimed at electing Republicans. What we’re not going to do is the circular firing squads.”
Duffy said McInnis would be willing to share a stage with Penry and Maes in an open forum, but not in a debate. In other words, he wouldn’t accept a format where one candidate answers a question and each of the other candidates has an opportunity to respond to his answer.
“Our preference is, let’s take questions. And here is the McInnis portion, the Penry portion and the Maes portion,” Duffy said. “What we have asked is to avoid the questions from the other guy about, ‘When did you stop tearing off the legs of the dog?’”
But Penry said Saturday that he doesn’t think McInnis is open to the idea of sharing a stage with him and Maes.
“I have got to say that, for me, for my part, I am eager to talk about my message, and I don’t think we should shy away from the debate,” Penry said during the forum.
“For me, if you can’t make your case in the here and now in a room of friendly supporters, then why should we trust you to make the case when the stakes are highest and the bullets are flying in 2010?” Penry continued. “To suggest that men and woman can’t stand on the same stage and exchange ideas, exchange governing philosophies, without it turning into a circular firing squad is beneath the process. I would propose that we debate and that we commit not to engage in name-calling.
“And, with all due respect, (McInnis not being here today) was not a scheduling error. He has clearly said that he doesn’t want to debate, and I think that is just wrong.”
The Colorado Statesman
Maes, the political newcomer, agreed with Penry on Saturday that McInnis had failed to join him and Penry at many forums, but added that he’s not really in a position to judge the positive or negative impact of McInnis’ absence.
“Scott is a talented and gifted man,” Maes said. “We all have different campaign strategies, though and I can’t explain what Scott is doing, and I can’t explain what Josh is doing. All I can say is what I am doing. I respect what they are doing and I may not agree with everything that happens, but I am the new guy. And who I am I to judge what people who have been around for a while are doing?”
What about abortion?
The GOP has worked hard this election cycle to avoid discussion of divisive social issues that have steered many moderates away from the party in recent years, instead choosing to focus on the economy. But Republican forum-goers clearly aren’t on the same page.
During Saturday’s forum, the candidates were asked if they believe life as a legal human being begins in the womb and if they would sign a current petition that would have voters decide whether Colorado’s Constitution should say that it does. A similar measure — which would have defined life as a legal entity as beginning at conception — failed in 2008 with nearly eight of 10 Colorado voters opposing it.
McInnis spokesman Zakhem said he couldn’t speak for McInnis on whether he would sign the petition, then pointed to the six-term congressman’s lengthy pro-life voting record as an indication of his stance. Zakhem then noted that, although he and his family are pro-life, focusing on the abortion issue has hurt the GOP brand in recent years.
“Abortion is a wedge issue that has divided our party and our nation for 35 years, and I am always concerned on this debate because it divides our party. And I am always concerned when government gets involved in this,” Zakhem said. “For me, abortion is not an issue.
“Killing anyone is wrong…. the fabric of our society is at its core when you’re talking about this. But the flip side of this coin is that a government that can tell you when life begins can also tell you when life ends — and that is a scary issue.”
Penry, who also defines himself as pro-life, agreed that the abortion debate has turned moderate voters away from the Republican Party. He also noted that he is troubled by the attitude of some conservative politicians who hold themselves morally superior to those who support abortion rights.
“I believe that life is sacred, and I think what the public values on this issue is authenticity,” Penry said. “I think where Republicans lose — actually both sides lose — is in failing to acknowledge that reasonable people disagree on this issue. I am as pro-life as I ever was, yet I am not going to be a candidate who wags my finger at people and chastises them for not believing in my beliefs. I think we should not judge or be harsh, but speak clearly and speak strongly about our beliefs.”
Maes, who said he already had signed the petition, said he wanted to remind people that a party that doesn’t focus on morality issues should remember that those issues are still important.
“We didn’t change our principles. We didn’t change what think about life. We simply reordered our priorities to focus on what most of America wants to focus on right now — and that is the economy,” Maes said.
Onward to education
The Saturday event took a new direction from earlier candidate forums when the spotlight turned to education issues.
Not surprisingly, all three candidates agreed that the key to improvement is raising the bar for the state’s public schools, many of which are plagued by low test scores and high dropout rates.
“I would continually push for higher standards and demand more from our teachers,” Maes said, adding that he would push for a teacher compensation system that is based on “free market principles” that reward teachers for good performance.
He did not say how he would establish standards to define teacher success.
Penry, who gave credit to Ritter and Colorado Democrats for their recent push to open more charter schools, said he would push for school vouchers and more rigorous school accountability. He also said he believes education is a policy area where Republicans can win the debate.
“This is an issue where we can run and win,” Penry said. “The tide of history is on our side. People know we need reform on this issue. And I can tell you that I would rather have parents making the decisions about how to best educate their children rather than the government.”
The crowd erupted in applause.