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Buck Navigates Tea Party Pros and Cons in Colorado

DENVER — Even after they became fodder on the campaign trail, Ken Buck refused to ditch his cowboy boots as he traveled across Colorado last week.

Buck clearly enjoys the tough guy image his footwear signifies, but the boots may also be a symbol of his wild ride in trying to harness the power of the tea party in the Republican Senate primary.

Buck owes his rise in the race largely to the tea party movement, yet this week the Weld County district attorney is having to explain his comment that he wants the “dumbasses at the tea party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I’m on the camera.”

It remains to be seen whether Buck’s latest caught-on-tape gaffe has opened the door for former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton to swing the momentum of the Senate primary back her way two weeks before the Aug. 10 contest. But the latest flap underscores the difficulties Buck has faced in trying to ride the tea party to the Senate nomination.

In many ways, the marriage between Buck and the tea party has been one of convenience.

Last fall, Buck’s campaign appeared dead, and reports surfaced that he was planning to drop out of the contest. Norton joined the race in mid-September, and Buck’s fundraising hit a wall. He raised less than $50,000 from October to December after raising nearly $500,000 in his first six months of campaigning.

But as Norton, who also was a state Public Health and Environment Department director and state Representative, came to be seen as the establishment candidate, tea party activists began casting about for an alternative.

Some activists in the state admit that they are supporting Buck in large part because he’s not Norton.

[IMGCAP(1)]Norton “has been more exposed to Washington politics than he has,” said Merrill Peake, 70, a Vietnam veteran who was cruising downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall on Thursday with a small “Don’t Tread on Me” flag attached to his motorized wheelchair. “Norton will bend to Washington. [Buck] hasn’t been to Washington so he doesn’t know all the dirty tricks.”

“She has been involved more [in government],” said Tracey Nazarenus, a manager at the Brighton Depot restaurant whose friends say she reminds them of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “If you’re in, you’re out. It’s that kind of year.”

Buck caught fire with tea party activists even though he hadn’t been identified as a leader of Colorado’s ultraconservative movement like former GOP Reps. Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave.

“I never knew of Ken Buck being an originator of the movement a couple of years ago; I think they adopted him,” longtime Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said. “But he is sufficiently conservative, and he is the non-establishment, outsider candidate. He got [the tea party] endorsement and ran with it.”

Establishment Credentials

Although she still rejects the label, the image of Norton as the establishment choice was solidified after it was revealed that the National Republican Senatorial Committee was reserving website domain names for her campaign and that NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) would travel to Colorado for a joint fundraiser with her.

Not all Colorado Republicans think Norton’s previous elected experience or her support in national GOP circles is a negative.

As he waited for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to address a gathering of Norton supporters in Colorado Springs on Friday, Frank Shannon said it’s not such a bad thing that Norton already has connections with other GOP leaders.

“I’d rather have someone with experience,” said Shannon, who runs a small manufacturing business in the Republican stronghold of El Paso County.

Shannon added that Norton is better with swing voters because she’s not perceived as being as extreme as Buck, and that fact will be key this fall as Republicans look to oust appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D).

But as Buck surged, Norton’s campaign seemed to falter.

In the first three months of the year, Buck’s fundraising rebounded to nearly $220,000 in receipts. He raised $421,000 in the second quarter, a total aided by the endorsement of tea party champion Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

Although Norton’s fundraising has been consistently stronger than Buck’s, she decided to skip the state GOP’s assembly in May and secured her place on the primary ballot by gathering petitions. That move was widely seen as a way to avoid the embarrassment of coming in second to Buck among the more hard-core party activists who make up the delegate population.

By mid-June, Buck was up by 16 points over Norton, according to a Denver Post poll.

But the biggest drawback of Buck’s tea party support is that some members of the group periodically say things that are controversial, which can force Buck into a tricky position.

Candidness Has a Price

Most of the 80 or so people who came to hear Buck speak at a meeting of the Brighton County Patriots — formerly known as the Brighton Tea Party — on Thursday were solid Buck supporters. But David and Nancy Paul of Westminster came to the meeting undecided. The Pauls knew a lot more about Norton and her previous work in elected office and were interested in hearing from Buck.

Among the questions Buck received was one from an older man who wanted to know about Buck’s immigration policy. The man suggested fixing the country’s illegal alien problem by sending a battalion of U.S. soldiers to the Mexican border armed with .50-caliber machine guns.

Buck was quick to distance himself from the statement.

“There’s a big difference between getting people in our country legally and shooting them on the border,” Buck said. “I am not in favor of shooting people coming over the border.”

Buck’s willingness to challenge some of the views in the room earned him the Pauls’ votes by the end of the evening. David Paul left with donation envelopes in his hand and Buck yard signs tucked under his arm.

“The first four questions he got he disagreed with every one of them and he wasn’t afraid to do that in an audience where he was looking for votes,” Paul said.

As he greeted attendees after the event, Buck summed up his philosophy on the campaign trail.

“I’m not here to be your friend,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I think.”

But Buck may have been a bit too candid in front of a Democratic tracker in June when he commented about tea party activists who continue to question whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Buck’s campaign apologized for his choice of words Monday but tried to minimize the importance of the “birther” debate in Colorado’s grass-roots conservative circles.

“Ken’s focused on the big issues facing our country right now that includes a $13 trillion deficit, that includes repealing ObamaCare, that includes creating jobs and securing our border, and those are the issues that these grass-roots groups are talking about,” spokesman Owen Loftus said.

But Norton’s camp was quick to jump on Buck for his comments.

“Ken Buck is two steps short of a fraud. He’s a self-proclaimed tea partier who trashes tea partiers when he thinks no one is looking,” Norton spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said Monday. “Ken says he can appeal to swing voters and beat Michael Bennet, and then trashes the roughly 50 percent of voters who wear high heels.”

The last part of Watson’s statement referred to another one of Buck’s recent overly candid moments that has suddenly become a hot issue in the primary.

The Shoe Debate

On Thursday, Norton released a new commercial slamming Buck for a comment he made about the cowboy boots he wears so proudly.

“Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels,” Buck says in a video clip used in the ad. “I have cowboy boots. They have real bullshit on them. That’s Weld County bullshit.”

“Now Ken Buck wants to go to Washington,” a narrator says. “He’d fit right in.”

Buck has explained the comment, which was made at a campaign stop, as a poor attempt at a joke. He pointed out Thursday that Norton had previously mentioned her high heels in a lighthearted way and that the former lieutenant governor has taken shots at him for not being “man enough” to attack her on the campaign trail.

Norton has said she believes Buck is connected to a trio of 527 groups led by the conservative group Americans for Job Security, which has dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads targeting her and promoting Buck.

Norton supporters are hoping voters view Buck’s high-heeled shoes comments as sexist and that they will give voters pause during the final two weeks of the campaign.

“That’s not the kind of leadership we need right now,” Santorum said at his joint appearance with Norton last week. “If a candidate in Pennsylvania said that, it would be a game changer.”

The fact that Norton might need a game changer moment at this point in the race is telling.

Buck released an internal poll Thursday showing him up 9 points in the primary. Norton responded Friday by saying that her internal polls showed her up by 2 or 3 points. Her campaign has yet to release a polling memo to back up those numbers.

What is clear is that Norton has been very much on the offensive in recent weeks, a sign of desperation, according to Buck supporters.

Norton is currently on air with a pair of ads and, according to the latest FEC reports, has spent nearly $2 million on her campaign — including about $400,000 on radio and TV air time alone — to Buck’s $513,000 in total expenditures.

In June, Norton earned some traction by questioning Buck’s ethics over a gun case he refused to prosecute in 2000 when he was a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office. And over the past week, the boots versus high-heeled shoes flap has garnered national headlines. At the Santorum event, one Norton supporter said Buck’s comments and salty language won’t go over well with the religious right in the party.

But not everyone is getting caught up in the shoe talk.

When she’s not working as a manager at the Brighton Depot, Nazarenus can be found demonstrating her skills as a rodeo cowgirl. So it’s not surprising where her loyalty in footwear lies.

“Boots beat high heels all the time,” Nazarenus said.

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