Colorado GOP Senate candidates battle for conservative primacy

Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and prosecutor Ken Buck are each trying to stake out the conservative position in a primary fight that Democrats believe will help their own candidate.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who was appointed to the seat when Sen. Ken Salazar (D) joined the Obama administration as Interior secretary, is enduring a tough primary challenge from House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

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The Democratic battle gives Republicans another opportunity to win a Senate seat in a year in which control of the upper chamber increasingly looks to be in play.

But Democratic Party strategists think their winning candidate will emerge as more of a centrist than the victor of the Norton-Buck fight. That will help Democrats in November, they say.

As an established officeholder, Norton would seem to be vulnerable in today’s political climate to the challenge from Buck, who has been embraced by the Tea Party movement.

Given the environment, she’s sought to portray herself as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.

Norton turned heads last week when she embraced comments by former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo.

Speaking to a crowd of Buck supporters, Tancredo called President Obama a bigger threat to the United States than al Qaeda.

Buck had distanced himself from the anti-illegal immigration firebrand’s remarks, but Norton a day later said she essentially agreed with Tancredo, which forced Buck to walk back his criticism.

Norton had said there was a “real measure of truth” in what Tancredo said.

“The greatest threat, folks, is not a single man, but rather the progressive liberal movement that is going on in this country,” Buck said at the Western Political Summit over the weekend.

One reason Buck’s reaction might have left Norton feeling a sense of opportunity: “Tom Tancredo is a hero around here,” according to Douglas County GOP Chairman Mark Baisley.

Douglas County boasts a large concentration of Republican primary voters and both Buck and Norton are working the county hard ahead of the August primary.

“I think Jane chose to associate herself with [Tancredo’s comments] as much as she could,” said Baisley.

It might even offer a new game plan for Republican primary candidates fighting off the “establishment” mantle, said one Republican consultant: “Given the current environment, go ahead and just out-crazy your opponent.”

On Wednesday, Norton continued the outsider line of attack with the release of an ad that hit Buck’s support from the group Americans for Job Security.

“You’ve seen those ads attacking me,” Norton says in her own ad. “They’re paid for by a shady interest group doing the bidding of Ken Buck. You’d think Ken would be man enough to do it himself.”

Buck has been embraced by the Tea Party movement and conservatives like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

“Ken Buck is a common-sense guy who believes in limited government and that’s why I support him,” DeMint said in an interview. He called out Norton for waging “a very negative campaign” thus far.

In an interview with The Hill, Buck argued that in several of his comments, seized upon and derided by Democrats as exemplifying the political fringe, are what he sees as mainstream political thought.

“People have said to me, ‘Well, you’re trying to run to the right of her,’ and that just isn’t true,” said Buck.

“I have my set of beliefs and she has hers,” he said. “I’m not sure who is more conservative.”

Buck is no “birther” who questions whether President Obama was born in the United States, he said.

“I have done my best to make it clear that I’m not one of these folks who is going to be talking about the birth certificate issue,” Buck said.

He’s said legislation to require a birth certificate for presidential candidates would be “a reasonable thing.” But he now says that comment was “immediately taken out of context and people made it into a ‘birther’ issue.”

Buck also claims comments he’s made about Social Security were twisted by his opponents.

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At a candidate forum in March, Buck said of the Social Security program: “I don’t know whether it’s constitutional or not.” Buck now says he was merely questioning the program’s efficiency.

“It’s really an education to go through this process for me,” said Buck. “I can understand why so many people are so frustrated here by this process.

“It really makes you overly cautious,” said Buck.