Energy alternatives dominate debate as Udall and Schaffer face-offs continue

Third-party candidates add spice to mix

By John Schroyer

Energy is becoming the cornerstone issue of Colorado’s U.S. Senate debate, and that was highlighted several times last week as each candidate tried to show how flexible he is. Democrat Mark Udall tried to convince voters that he’s a moderate Democrat who’s open to offshore drilling and nuclear energy, while Republican Bob Schaffer repeatedly insisted that he’s a big fan of renewable energy.

“I am your low-energy-price guy,” Schaffer told a crowd of several hundred on Friday during the closing moments of a debate in Westminster sponsored by the North Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. The debate also featured Green Party Senate candidate Bob Kinsey.

Udall’s pitch at Friday’s forum — among others — was that he’s “responding to the situation in front of us” by calling for more offshore drilling as well as other possible fuel sources.

“We need to throw the kitchen sink at this,” the Eldorado Springs Democrat is fond of saying.

Udall defended himself against charges of flip-flopping on domestic drilling, but the Schaffer campaign had a field day with Udall’s new position. During a taped debate on KBDI Channel 12 Thursday, Schaffer said, “It takes a number of pages to go through all of the votes you’ve cast against drilling.”

Schaffer quipped that Udall’s insistence that he’s always been in favor of responsible energy exploration was a “Rip Van Winkle moment.”

Udall returned with a shot of his own at Schaffer’s former job as a vice president with Aspect Energy.

“Of course he wants to drill,” Udall said. “It’s profitable to his industry.”

Schaffer kept up the banter, accusing that, “Paris Hilton is more consistent on energy than you are.”

Hilton, whose image was used to lampoon Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in a campaign ad by Republican John McCain, disingenuously outlined her own energy policy in a recent online video.

Udall outlined his plan more fully on Aug. 13, just a day before a trio of forums with Schaffer.

Udall and Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar on Wednesday announced their plan to push a new energy bill when Congress reconvenes in September. The bill, they said during a press conference on the West steps of the Capitol, is designed to build on the bipartisan legislation proposed by the “Gang of 10,” a pack of five Democratic senators and five Republican senators pushing for an increase in domestic energy exploration, including offshore drilling.

Udall and Salazar’s plan calls for releasing 70 million barrels of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, cracking down on energy speculators, establishing a national renewable energy standard of 20 percent by 2020, extending renewable energy tax credits, promoting energy efficiency, expanding offshore drilling and supporting new nuclear power plants.

“It is important to break the gridlock in Washington, D.C., and that gridlock, frankly, exists because you have extremists on both sides that keep us from getting across the goal line,” said Salazar, who went on to heap most of the blame onto Senate Republicans who have opposed tax credits for renewable energy research.

Udall even offered to put Schaffer’s name on the plan on Thursday, saying it could be the “Schaffer-Udall plan.”

But Schaffer said he had no interest in Udall’s legislation.

“Neither I nor anybody who’s serious about energy independence is going to join you on your new bill. It stands for nothing,” Schaffer asserted.

Udall turned the tables on Schaffer somewhat on Friday, however. During the North Metro Chamber debate, following a question by moderator Ron Zappolo on federal funding for the state’s transportation infrastructure, Schaffer reiterated a charge that his campaign has been using against Udall for weeks now, accusing Udall of supporting a 50 cent gas tax increase.

The Democrat responded that Schaffer was distorting a slight joke that he made in 2002, then said Schaffer, on the other hand, had voted for a gas tax increase during his time in the Colorado Legislature.

When asked about the vote afterwards, Schaffer campaign manager Dick Wadhams said only, “Bob Schaffer has never voted for a federal gas tax increase.”

When asked if Schaffer had voted for a gas tax at the state level, however, Wadhams said, “I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know.”

The tax hike Schaffer voted for was part of a larger transportation funding measure in 1989, and phased in a tax increase of 4 cents over two years, from 18 cents to 22 cents per gallon. That was the last time the state gas tax was raised.

The Udall campaign also was distributing an MP3 recording of Schaffer they dug up recently that reportedly has him saying he had voted for “gas taxes” during a debate in the 2004 primary campaign for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

“Bob Schaffer is distorting Mark’s record and distracting from his own vote to increase gas taxes by 20 percent,” accused Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo.

Wadhams, when provided with a copy of the MP3, declined to comment. Instead, he deflected attention back onto Udall by asserting that the Democrat had altered his stance on domestic drilling for “political reasons.”

“He knows the current is shifting against him, so to get back in the game on energy, he’s now trying to suddenly tell us, ‘I was for drilling all the time.’ That’s a bunch of bunk,” Wadhams said.

Ironically, both Schaffer and Udall repeatedly cited partisan bickering as a turn-off to voters, noting that negative campaigning has led to record low approval ratings for Congress.

Both pledged to rise above such spats.

The opponents also agreed on several issues. Both blamed Russia for the current crisis in Georgia. Both also stressed the importance of earmark reform, securing the borders, reforming immigration policy and tax relief for Americans.

They did, of course, differ on many of the details, especially when it came to taxes.

The gist, however, was roughly the same: the middle class needs tax cuts. Schaffer also argued in favor of tax incentives for corporations to stimulate the economy and better the lives of all. He also defended the Bush tax cuts, which Udall opposes.

The pair also agreed that John McCain erred when he recently claimed that the 1922 water compact between Colorado, Arizona, California and other Western states should be renegotiated.

Though Udall said he plans to push Schaffer to rebut the presidential nominee of his party, Schaffer needed no cues, and said Friday that Colorado has “no interest” in renegotiating the compact.

Such digressions aside, just about every talking point wound back to energy. Udall linked the Russia-Georgia situation to oil, Schaffer raised the issue when discussing transportation funding. Green Party candidate Kinsey said fossil fuel emissions are causing the globe to warm and the ice caps to melt.

Then, of course, there are high gas prices to consider. Schaffer and Udall both have identified energy as the most vital issue in the race, and that prediction seems to be bearing itself out.

Meanwhile, the campaign trail also grew much more colorful this past week with the entry of the two minor party candidates. Kinsey and American Constitution Party candidate Doug “Dayhorse” Campbell took part in the KBDI taping on Thursday, and Kinsey also was included in Friday’s debate. The pair delighted in skewering their major party opponents and had quite a bit to say.

Kinsey drew fire from both Schaffer and Udall at times, particularly for advocating the impeachment of Bush administration officials and his criticism of Schaffer’s favorite economist, conservative hero Milton Friedman.

After the Udall-Schaffer exchange on gas taxes on Friday, Kinsey likened the free market economic theories of Friedman to disease, and said, “Uncontrolled growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.”

He also ominously warned that “We’re doomed if we don’t take care of this environment.”

On Thursday, he derided the war on terror as a “war on a noun,” and said, “Both the Democrats and the Republicans have sold out their oaths to defend the Constitution of the United States by not impeaching George Bush and Dick Cheney.”

Udall called the latter suggestion a “fool’s errand” and said the focus of Congress should be on how to responsibly exit Iraq and correct mistakes made by the White House.

If Kinsey was the extreme version of the Democratic left, then Campbell was a strict conservative version of the Republican right, offering views similar to those of libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul on many issues. Campbell criticized Congress for letting the Bush administration start a war without formally declaring one and backed Schaffer on free market economics with less government intervention.

He also somewhat stole the show with his closing comment, “My Democrat opponent says that the Republican is a hand-in-the-till corporate fat-cat elitist. He doesn’t deserve your vote, and you shouldn’t vote for him. My Republican opponent says the Democrat is a tree-hugging tax-and-spend big-government elitist. He doesn’t deserve your vote, and you shouldn’t vote for him. I say you should listen to them and take their advice.”

Independent candidate Buddy Moore also is running for the Senate, but was not part of the KBDI debate or the North Metro Chamber debate.

Udall holds narrow lead, according to two new polls

Two new polls released last week found Udall still leading Schaffer by a slim margin. Both show Udall up by six points, although they differ on the number of undecided voters in the race.

A poll co-sponsored by the Rocky Mountain News and News 4 found Udall leading 44 percent to Schaffer’s 38 percent, with a full 35 percent undecided. A poll by Rasmussen Reports showed Udall leading with 47 percent to Schaffer’s 41 percent. Both polls represent a continuation of a solid trend over the past few months that has Udall up by a very vulnerable margin. He led by nine points in June, but slipped to four in July, according to Rasmussen.

Both Schaffer and Udall played down the recent numbers, and said most of the public won’t really start paying attention until September.

According to Rasmussen Markets data, Udall has a 66 percent chance of winning the race.