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Slippery (Western) Slope For Republicans

On paper, Republicans have two candidates competing for the right to take on freshman Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) next year in the sprawling 3rd district.

One has been raising money aggressively, traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with party leaders and interest groups, and has begun putting together a campaign team. The other has been working his peach orchard and keeping a low profile.

But it’s the intentions of the second candidate — former state Natural Resources secretary Greg Walcher, the 2004 nominee against Salazar — that privately worry the GOP establishment.

While few will say so publicly, many party leaders believe their best chance of knocking off Salazar rests with providing a clear field for businessman Scott Tipton, the longtime chairman of the 3rd District Republican Committee who quickly raised $102,000 for his nascent campaign.

“It’s always to our benefit to avoid a primary if we can,” said Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But Walcher, who ran what many GOP leaders and activists consider a disappointing campaign, is not ready to give them that satisfaction. While he filed candidacy papers for a second try earlier this year, he did not raise a dime from April 1 to June 30. (He does have $63,000 remaining in his campaign account.)

“I think it’s too early to decide,” Walcher said in an interview last week. “I think voters and candidates need a break after an election.”

Tipton certainly is not deferring to Walcher, whose business and political connections seemed impeccable heading into 2004.

Tipton, the owner of a company near Mesa Verde National Park that sells American Indian art and artifacts, has already won the endorsement of two of Walcher’s many 2004 GOP primary rivals, and a third, who was initially contemplating another House run, has opted to seek a state Senate seat instead. Tipton also expressed confidence that he will win the endorsements of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) and former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), Salazar’s predecessor.

Tipton’s early fundraising tally also was designed to show strength.

“The timing of Scott’s fundraising is to keep this field clear, to undo the mistakes that were made in this district last time,” said Stephen Patterson, a Tipton consultant.

Tipton is personally wealthy, meaning he should be able to supplement whatever he raises. He has said he is willing to kick in $50,000.

“I have not contributed yet,” Tipton said. “It’s not that I won’t.”

Whether a Republican primary materializes, the GOP nominee will certainly need to be well-funded in a race against Salazar, the older brother of freshman Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).

Rep. Salazar raised $371,000 in the second quarter of 2005, and he had $474,000 on hand at the end of June. He will also be a beneficiary of the House Democrats’ Frontline fundraising program, which boosts vulnerable incumbents.

Salazar, a potato seed farmer, represents a tricky target for Republicans, as his fundraising report shows. In addition to raising money from various liberal-leaning labor unions, Salazar also received substantial contributions from the National Rifle Association and several agribusiness groups.

“I’m proud of my broad support,” he said.

The Congressman also has taken moderate to conservative positions on several key issues and is quickly seizing on the advantages that incumbency affords.

Still, Republicans say the time to defeat Salazar is now, before he becomes entrenched. And they believe the political dynamic in a district that President Bush won with 55 percent is more favorable for them this cycle than it was in 2004.

For starters, Salazar will not be sharing the ballot with his popular brother this time. And while water will continue to be a major issue in the 2006 election, it should not hurt Republicans as much as it did last year — as long as Walcher is not the nominee.

Walcher, as Owens’ natural resources secretary, had become associated in a high-profile way with a defeated 2003 statewide ballot initiative on water that the governor had promoted. The measure was particularly unpopular in the 3rd district.

“Last cycle, the thing that killed us was the water issue,” Forti said. “There was only so much we could do. Walcher was on the wrong side.”

As a result, Salazar won by 4 percentage points — a 12,000-vote margin out of more than 304,000 votes cast. To Tipton, that is not an insurmountable number.

“That doesn’t show a lot of strengths when you consider all the inherent advantages [Salazar] had that he won’t have this time,” he said. Which is why the prospect of a second Walcher candidacy is so troubling to some Republicans.

Since losing the election, Walcher has returned to his peach orchard in Palisade and is doing some consulting on natural resources issues. And while he hasn’t done any preparation for another race, he said he is confident that he could be competitive again — noting his campaign surplus and the long list of supporters he compiled.

“I think if I decided to do it again I could hit the ground running fairly quickly,” Walcher said.

During the fractious 2004 primary, Walcher was the favorite of social conservatives, which is often an advantage in Republican contests — though in Tipton, Walcher would face an opponent who has strong conservative credentials of his own. When he was just 19, Tipton was a delegate for Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican National Convention — when Reagan was the insurgent against then-President Gerald Ford.

Tipton has been approached about running for office several times before and came close to entering the 2004 Congressional contest. Despite the Republicans’ sense of opportunity lost in that race — and the possibility that Salazar could be tougher as the incumbent — Tipton said he has no regrets. His children, he said, were simply not old enough then for him to feel comfortable about making that race.

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