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Bennet’s Road to 2010 About to Get Bumpy

Entering the August recess, appointed Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D) appeared to be sitting pretty when it came to his prospects for winning a full term in 2010.

Most of the Democratic primary talk that had cropped up earlier this spring had subsided by midsummer, and the GOP Senate field was still very much in flux without a clear frontrunner in the mix.

This week, that all changes.

Today, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) will kick off her campaign at events in Denver, Colorado Springs and her hometown of Grand Junction. According to multiple insiders, Norton, who served as lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007 under then-Gov. Bill Owens (R), instantly jumps to the top of the GOP primary pile.

Then, on Wednesday, well-known former state Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who was at the center of Democratic primary rumors in the immediate aftermath of Bennet’s appointment, will kick off his campaign with events in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver.

Neither announcement is welcome news for Bennet, the former head of the Denver public school system who has never run for elected office.

Party loyalists say a serious primary gives Bennet the chance to cut his political teeth and build support and name recognition ahead of the general election.

But that argument holds a lot more weight in early primaries, not those that take place in August and leave less than three months for wounds to be healed and campaign coffers to be refilled before Election Day.

For now, at least, both parties would be working under the same abbreviated time frame from primary to general election. But that could change if Norton is able to put together a campaign and raise the type of funds that can clear a GOP field that currently includes half a dozen candidates.

Some Colorado insiders are openly wondering if she’ll get help in doing that from the national party.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee earned some backlash in the state after it was revealed earlier this month that the committee registered domain names for Norton to use for a Web site if she decided to run.

But the NRSC was treading lightly in terms of the intraparty battle in Colorado on Monday.

“While Republicans are fortunate to have several well-qualified candidates looking at this race, the NRSC has no plans to endorse,— NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said. “The voters of Colorado will ultimately choose the Republican nominee. … Republicans have a tremendous opportunity to go on offense in Colorado next year, and we’re gearing up for what will be a very competitive race.—

Meanwhile, Bennet’s more immediate concern is Romanoff.

Although he left office in January because of term limits, Romanoff is still widely known and respected in Colorado Democratic circles for helping to engineer the party’s takeover of the state House.

He made his interest in the Senate seat clear when then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D) was tapped as Interior secretary by President Barack Obama, and Romanoff was seen by many insiders as the man who would have had the party machine at his disposal if he had been appointed. But he was passed over by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in favor of the largely unknown Bennet in early January.

Now Bennet is running as the establishment candidate and he already has endorsements from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and most of the state’s Congressional delegation.

But Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D) and Diana DeGette (D), who claim both Bennet and Romanoff as friends, have decided to stay neutral in the race.

A spokesman for DeGette said Monday that the Congresswoman “has had a long-standing policy of staying out of primaries,— while Perlmutter’s spokeswoman said the Congressman has not decided if he will make an endorsement in the Senate race.

One Colorado Democratic insider said such silence on the endorsement front is a net win for Romanoff.

“There’s going to be a battle over the spin on these things [but] because Michael is the establishment candidate, then the expectations are so much higher for endorsements,— the insider said. “Any big name that Michael gets you shrug off— because as the incumbent he’s expected to get those endorsements. Meanwhile, Romanoff is already making headlines for earning support from a local district attorney and county commission chairman.

Romanoff spokeswoman Joelle Martinez said Romanoff’s strength in Colorado was built on the grass-roots level.

“One thing that’s important about Colorado is that the Democratic Party really had a resurgence under Andrew Romanoff’s leadership when we took back the state House,— Martinez said. “So when those precinct captains were being organized and when the counties that were once ignored were once again brought back in the mix, a lot of that was under Romanoff’s leadership.—

But what Romanoff must do if he wants to build momentum is turn that grass-roots support into serious campaign cash. With $2.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30, Bennet’s campaign war chest is his biggest advantage at the moment.

Meanwhile, Bennet adviser Craig Hughes said Bennet has used his time in office well to prepare for his 2010 race.

“You can’t control if other people get into the race, you can only control how effective of a Senator you are and how strong of a campaign you’re putting together,— Hughes said. “We’re confident Michael has been doing an excellent job on both fronts.—

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