AT FIRST GLANCE, Colorado looks like a trusty slice of "red" America. It has a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and about 19 percent more registered Republicans than Democrats. Its congressional lineup tilts 5-2 in the GOP's favor, and Republicans control both houses of the state legislature in Denver. Four years ago, George W. Bush won the Centennial State by 9 points.
So pollster John Zogby raised eyebrows this week when he found Sen. John Kerry leading Bush in Colorado. To be sure, Kerry's lead was within the margin of error. But it affirmed that Colorado is a "battleground" state in the 2004 presidential race.
It's also a key battleground among Senate contests. Sure enough, as President Bush stumped in Greeley this past Monday, GOP Senate candidate Pete Coors was right by his side. Coors, 58, has hitched his wagon to Bush's star, hoping it can lift him past his Democratic opponent, Colorado attorney general Ken Salazar, 49. The two are competing for the seat being vacated by Republican senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
For Coors, waving the Bush flag makes sense. "As Bush does better here, Coors does better," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Coors is clearly helped by the president." With no prior experience in politics, the beer baron doesn't have a record to defend or promote. So he's linked himself with Bush's policies; above all, those on terrorism and tax cuts. (Salazar calls Coors a "rubber stamp" for the president's anti-terror strategy.) Coors also raises the specter of Senate Democrats regaining majority power. This has no doubt galvanized many pro-Bush conservatives. But according to Ciruli's polling, Coors still needs to shore up his GOP base.
That's not all he needs. A Zogby poll released Wednesday shows Coors trailing Salazar by 10 points, which suggests Salazar is winning the critical fight for unaffiliated swing voters. Roughly 33 percent of the state's registered voters are independents. This bulky demographic has historically been a wild-card factor. (For example, Ross Perot grabbed 23 percent of the vote in Colorado in 1992, one of his best finishes nationwide.)
Hence the Salazar approach. The Hispanic Democrat casts himself as a bipartisan problem solver. He touts his 18 years of public service. He cites his work with both Republicans and Democrats. He mentions his rural roots in southern Colorado. And he consistently plugs his centrist credentials.
Nor is that last one a stretch. While Salazar has made a few outlandish statements about "evil" GOP forces, he is known as a fairly moderate Democrat. He is tough on crime and pro-death penalty (while Coors, interestingly, is anti-death penalty). He has in fact defended the death penalty as attorney general. Salazar has also backed a limited school voucher program in Denver. He is anti-gay marriage (but also anti-FMA) and relatively pro-gun. And he's had a productive relationship with Republican governor Bill Owens.
His moderate record has enabled Salazar to rack up some impressive newspaper endorsements, including that of the conservative Rocky Mountain News.
Perhaps Salazar's deftest appeal has been to agricultural interests. Rural voters living on Colorado's water-rich Western Slope have long been chary of basin-to-basin water transfers to the more populous (and arid) regions of eastern Colorado. In its editorial endorsing Salazar, the Pueblo Chieftain lauded his opposition to Referendum A, a November 2003 ballot initiative that would've freed up $2 billion in bond money for water-transfer projects (at a repayment cost of $4 billion). Colorado voters rejected this measure at the polls. Salazar has used Coors's support for Referendum A as a campaign bludgeon.
The Colorado AG is most vulnerable on taxes. He wants to roll back a chunk of the Bush tax cuts, and would further muddle the tax code with protectionist credits for manufacturing employers. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has a TV ad up bashing Salazar's "scary ideas" about taxation.
The NRSC has indeed pumped gobs of money into the race. It is already the costliest in Colorado history. Salazar out-raised and outspent his rival during the third quarter, but Coors has tapped into his personal fortune. The two have made much of each other's backgrounds. Coors hits Salazar for being a lawyer, while discussing the need for tort reform. Salazar hits Coors for being a millionaire, while bashing "tax cuts to the wealthy."
Coors, of course, has the superior name recognition, though Salazar, with his 18 years in state politics, is no slouch in that category. But the beer magnate is far from a polished candidate. Salazar got the better of him in their numerous debates. And having won two statewide races, the Democrat is seen as a budding star. Still, as Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer points out, the silver-haired Coors "looks statesmanlike" and projects "a moderate image."
So can Coors pull it out? The answer could hinge on the length of Bush's coattails. Despite Kerry's recent surge, the president will likely take Colorado. The question is, by how much. Coors may need a lopsided Bush victory in Colorado to prevail. Right now at least, the odds of that appear slim.
Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.