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Continental Divide in Colo.

GOP Factions Split Over Senate Election

Wealthy real estate magnate Dave Liniger (R) would benefit from the behind-the-scenes backing of national Republicans as well as Gov. Bill Owens (R) should he — as expected — step into the Colorado Senate primary against former Rep. Bob Schaffer.

“If Liniger does get in, he will enjoy the support of national leaders,” said one Senate Republican leadership aide.

The source added that while there will be no overt backing of Liniger in a primary, the support “will definitely be there.”

Liniger has formed an exploratory committee as he contemplates whether to enter the race. He has had extensive conversations with Owens, retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) and Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo) about the prospect in recent days, according Cinamon Watson, an adviser to his exploratory effort.

Schaffer has been endorsed by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard (R) and has benefited from fundraisers hosted by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and 11 of his former House colleagues in recent days. Schaffer has also just signed up former National Republican Senatorial Committee Political Director Chris LaCivita as a general consultant.

“Certainly there are some people in Washington who are still shopping for a candidate,” said former Colorado Republican Sen. Bill Armstrong, a Schaffer backer. But he added that “the preponderance of institutional Washington would be for Bob and not somebody else.”

Despite that early show of support for Schaffer, national Republicans see Liniger’s vast personal wealth as co-founder of Re/Max International — one of the largest real estate firms in the country — as his main asset. His lack of any voting record that will allow Democrats to label him is also seen as a benefit.

While no Democrats would comment on the record about a potential Liniger candidacy, several indicated privately that they would prefer to run against Schaffer.

“Given what we know about Schaffer and what we don’t know about this other gentleman and his bank account, we would prefer to face Schaffer though we are confident we can win against either,” said one D.C.-based Democratic operative.

State Attorney General Ken Salazar is the odds-on Democratic nominee.

But even some top Republican strategists expressed trepidation about the willingness of institutional figures to side with Liniger.

“There is very little known about what his positions are on issues, and so it strikes me that the people who are jumping on his bandwagon right now are doing so without a great deal of knowledge about who he is and what he represents,” said one Colorado Republican strategist.

Liniger is expected to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) later this week; Schaffer made that same trip last week.

The prospect of a competitive Republican primary comes roughly one month after Campbell announced he would not seek a third term, and more than two weeks since Schaffer jumped into the open-seat race.

It also follows decisions by a number of potential Republican candidates not to run; that group was led by Owens, who was seen as the GOP’s strongest candidate.

After his no-go decision, Owens and his political team tried unsuccessfully to convince 7th district Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) and Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) into the contest.

Even after Schaffer announced for the race on March 12, it was clear that the Owens faction of the state party was not satisfied with the former Congressman as its likely nominee.

Liniger’s exploratory committee boasts a Who’s Who of Owens loyalists, including former state party Chairman Bruce Benson as well as Watson and Sean Tonner, the two lead consultants for both Owens and Campbell.

Watson said that Liniger has received more than 1,000 phone calls in the past few days encouraging him to enter the Senate race and offering support.

While no specific timetable has been put in place, a decision will come “sooner than later,” said Watson, citing the state’s Aug. 10 primary date.

Schaffer has put together his own roster of institutional backers led by Allard and Armstrong as well as former Sen. Hank Brown.

He has also secured the support of Colorado Reps. Tom Tancredo (R) and Marilyn Musgrave (R) as well as the state House and state Senate Majority Leaders.

“We understand the Owens people have gotten behind Liniger,” said Elizabeth Blackney, a Schaffer spokeswoman. “We welcome a full and open debate about who these men are.”

Blackney’s comments seem to presage Schaffer’s likely attempt to cast himself as a proven commodity in contrast to the little-known Liniger.

First elected to the 4th district seat in 1996 to replace Allard, Schaffer easily held the seat for three terms while compiling a generally conservative voting record.

He left in 2002, abiding by a three-term-limit pledge.

Schaffer “has a proven record of leadership for the state,” said Blackney. “We know exactly who he is and what he stands for.”

She also pointed out that a poll conducted by John McLaughlin for the Schaffer campaign showed him trailing Salazar by only 11 points despite being much less well-known statewide. In Schaffer’s old district, he led Salazar 46 percent to 33 percent.

By contrast, Liniger is largely a tabula rasa in political circles.

He has been a major Republican donor for a number of cycles; he and his wife have already donated $85,000 to GOPers so far in the 2004 cycle, including $50,000 to the Republican National Committee.

Beyond that financial commitment, however, Liniger is not known as a particularly high-profile Republican activist.

“Liniger is a person who has shied away from any public visibility for all these years,” said a strategist not affiliated with either Liniger or Schaffer.

“There are a half-dozen other high-profile, politically engaged business leaders in Colorado who could easily enter a U.S Senate race and know what they were getting into” more than Liniger, the source added.

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