By Ellen Miller
WESTERN SLOPE CORRESPONDENT
GRAND JUNCTION — The political theater started early for the highly anticipated debate between Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. and Republican challenger Ken Buck.
Bennet cruised through Club 20’s gathering at Two Rivers Convention Center during lunch, going table-to-table shaking hands. Then it was off to a peaches-and-ice-cream fundraiser held at the home of Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, and then to a Democratic rally at the party headquarters four blocks down Main Street from Two Rivers.
Meanwhile, Republicans began to rally around 3:30 p.m. just outside the convention center. Volunteers donned campaign T-shirts for Buck and Republican congressional candidate Scott Tipton and hooted and hollered as a small jazz band played “Dixie.”
By 5:30 p.m., Republicans holding Buck and Tipton signs shouted back and forth with Democrats holding signs for Bennet, gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. John Salazar.
While they were loud, most were good-natured, giving private security guards little to do besides watch.
By the time Buck and Bennet squared off on the stage inside for the last of the day-long debates, the schedule was running nearly an hour behind. But the partisans had not lost their voices.
Buck came out attacking in his opening remarks, saying Bennet has “become too comfortable in Washington” and that the choice for Colorado’s next senator is clear.
“He votes one way in Washington and preaches fiscal responsibility in Colorado,” Buck said. “He voted for bailouts and national health care and here he says we have $13 trillion in debt and nothing to show for it.”
That remark generated the first thunderous cheer from Republicans in the audience of about 800.
Bennet, in his opening, took a quieter tack, reminding the audience of 9-11 and talking about the nation’s challenges. When he said the economy was coming slowly out of recession, Republicans began booing, but Bennet continued on, saying he remains “optimistic we’ll build a better country.”
That brought cheers from the Democrats, who were outnumbered 2-1, about the same proportion as Republicans to Democrats in Mesa County.
In response to a question about rural health care from a panel of three Club 20 members and a network correspondent, Bennet said more rural health centers, particularly for veterans, would be built under the health care reform package.
“Where do we get the money?” Buck asked.
That was a pattern through most of the Western Slope-oriented questions. Other questions found them in agreement, including the importance of local input on wilderness designations and the need to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the consideration of using military force.
But when the debate turned to the “cross-examination” portion, in which each candidate got four minutes to ask the opponent questions and interrupt at will, things became more interesting — and a lot more vocal.
The format allowed Buck, a career prosecutor, to excel, hammering Bennet with questions, interjecting his own comments as Bennet tried to answer, and forcing Bennet into a major gaffe.
Buck asked why Bennet had voted for a bill that contained thousands of earmarks, including a $1.5 million allocation for an airport named after disgraced former Rep. John Murtha, and Bennet replied, “I’m sure that’s true. It was certainly not of interest to me.”
Republicans in the crowd howled, and Buck had to shout his rejoinder, “$1.5 million is certainly of interest to all of us.”
Bennet said he misunderstood the question; Buck said he wouldn’t use “your misstatement” in a commercial.
They also clashed over Bennet’s television ad attacking Buck as “too extreme for Colorado,” with Buck demanding that Bennet pull the ad, saying Front Range media outlets had found portions of it false.
Bennet refused, saying Buck’s comments calling for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and privatizing Social Security were his own and he had made them.
After the debate, both campaigns claimed victory.
“Michael stood out in the debate this evening with his common sense solutions for Colorado,” said Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid. Buck “wasn’t interested in hearing his own extremist words read back to him that prove the ad true. (He) panicked when Michael was prepared with the facts and Buck’s own words.”
Buck campaign manager John Swartout said Buck “put forward a clear plan to get Coloradans back to work and to get Washington’s spending under control, problems that Sen. Bennet has neglected to solve.”
“Michael Bennet’s strategy is to lie about Ken Beck’s record, and run away from his own,” Swartout said.