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No Sen. Bennet in This Race — It’s Just Michael

DENVER — If it’s all really just an act, Sen. Michael Bennet plays it well.

On the campaign trail, the Colorado Democrat doesn’t come across as the son of a diplomat, an Ivy League graduate or one of the 50 richest Members of Congress.

He’s just Michael. He wears a $20 watch from Target (“It keeps perfect time,” he says), shows up to campaign events in a shirt with holes in the collar and forgets that he should stand facing the cameras during photo ops arranged by his staff. When addressing a room full of supporters, he often has a hand in the pocket of his frayed jeans.

At a gathering of about 20 people Saturday morning sponsored by a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, Bennet appeared most comfortable talking about birthday parties with 5-year-old Kalyssa Fenwick, even though Fenwick was more interested in her chocolate-frosted doughnut than conversing with the Senator.

Bennet, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in early 2009 to replace now-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (D), may automatically be the insider in this year’s Senate race simply because he is the incumbent. But he’s doing everything he can to be the outsider’s insider.

In his ads, Bennet wanders through the mountains and rolling hills of Colorado, reminding voters that he’s been in Congress for only “a little over a year” and that he understands just how broken Washington is.

“I wake up every morning determined to fight for Colorado, to solve problems, not play politics,” Bennet says in one ad airing in the state. “I’m asking for your vote so that we can keep fighting together.”

During one of the most anti-Washington cycles in recent memory and in a state that is a top target of national Republicans, it’s probably the right approach. The question is whether voters believe the message and the image.

[IMGCAP(1)]”Bennet was elected by one vote: Ritter’s,” John Dydyn said as he was eating a burger during the Friday lunchtime rush at City Grill, a political gathering spot in Denver just blocks from the state Capitol.

To Dydyn, an accountant, Bennet is little more than a rich kid who always got everything he wanted. After a job in the Clinton administration, Bennet spent some time in the private sector before his old college friend, John Hickenlooper (D), was elected mayor of Denver and asked Bennet to serve as his chief of staff. That led to an appointment to serve as superintendent of Denver’s public schools in 2005 even though Bennet had no real experience in the education field. Then came the Senate appointment, a move that surprised most everyone in Colorado political circles.

Bennet’s most recent Senate financial disclosure report put his personal wealth at a minimum of $6.2 million.

“He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” said Dydyn, a Republican.

But before Bennet can focus on winning over voters such as Dydyn in the purple state of Colorado, he’ll have to wrap up his Aug. 10 primary against former state Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

With two weeks to go, Bennet appears to be well-positioned in that contest.

Poise and Polish

In many ways, Romanoff comes across as the better politician in the primary. He’s poised and polished in his stump speeches, always stays on message and maintains a confident and ever-present smile, even when discussing a June poll from the Denver Post that showed him down 17 points. In true political fashion, his nod to casual attire seems to be rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirts.

Bennet readily acknowledges the stylistic differences.

“No one has ever accused me of being polished,” he said. “I may not be as good-looking either. I don’t know. I don’t think those are the things that are important to people.”

Romanoff served four terms in the state Legislature and was Speaker from 2005 to 2009. He left office last year because of term limits but is still widely known and respected in Colorado Democratic circles for helping to engineer the party’s takeover of the state House.

Romanoff made his interest in the Senate seat clear when Salazar was tapped as Interior secretary, and he was seen by many insiders as the person who would have had the party machine at his disposal if he had been appointed.

Eighteen months later, Romanoff’s biggest strength continues to be his connections in state party circles.

State Rep. Andy Kerr (D), who served with Romanoff in the state House, explained why he’s backing Romanoff against Bennet during a town hall event Friday in Lakewood.

Romanoff “has been in every county in this state long before he was running for this seat. He’s eaten the rubber-chicken dinners in their town halls and been at their fundraisers,” Kerr said. “Andrew is the best person to hold this seat because people all over the state know him and respect him.”

Colorado political insiders tend to agree that Romanoff will do better if turnout in the primary is relatively light because he is more familiar with hard-core party activists. That fact was confirmed by Romanoff’s 20-point lead over Bennet in a poll of the 3,500 delegates at the state party convention in May.

Money Is the Mother’s Milk

But Romanoff’s weaknesses are clear. He simply can’t compete with Bennet when it comes to fundraising.

According to June 30 Federal Election Commission reports, Bennet had raised nearly $7.5 million and spent just less than $5 million on his campaign. Romanoff had raised about $1.6 million and spent less than $1.2 million.

Romanoff supporters know what they are up against on the fundraising front. One supporter was selling cookies and brownies for a dollar at Kerr’s town hall to try to close the gap.

This week, Romanoff loaned his campaign an additional $325,000. He sold his house and cashed out part of his savings to do it.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe I was going to win,” Romanoff said Tuesday of his recent loan.

Romanoff has made much of his decision to eschew political action committee donations in his campaign and made Bennet’s support from special interests the main subject of his TV ads. He pointed out Wednesday that the money he has loaned his campaign is merely a quarter of what the Senator has received from special interest groups.

But skeptical Bennet supporters shrug off Romanoff’s decision to forgo PAC contributions as an attempt to turn into a political advantage the fact that he simply can’t raise any money from those groups.

In addition to the financial disparity, Romanoff’s decision to wait until September to jump into the race allowed Bennet a crucial nine months to put a campaign in place and make inroads in places where Romanoff was already well-known.

He was able to secure the support of people such as airline pilot and retired Marine John Flerlage (D), who is running in Colorado’s 6th district. At a candidate forum Thursday in downtown Denver, Flerlage said Romanoff was a “fantastic” Speaker but that he’s backing Bennet because the Senator came out early for Flerlage and “was willing to stand with me and say we can win the 6th district.”

Romanoff said 11 months was plenty of time for the primary.

“There are folks who say, ‘first come, first serve,'” he said. “To me, you’re electing someone to the U.S. Senate, so I think that’s a flimsy assertion.”

Unrefined Charm

While Bennet has a solid lead on Romanoff in the primary, multiple recent polls show him trailing both potential Republican challengers in the general election. Because he’s still introducing himself to voters in the state, Bennet’s biggest advantage over Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton this cycle has long been his ability to raise big money. So Republicans have been happy to watch the appointed Senator bleed away millions from his war chest in his fight against Romanoff.

And as the Democratic primary has gotten heated, Republican operatives have fostered the image that the Democratic Party in Colorado is in disarray. Republicans trumpeted the fact that the White House talked to Romanoff about a possible position in the administration if he got out of the race as a sign of the administration’s lack of confidence in Bennet despite President Barack Obama’s endorsement. Former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Romanoff in June also complicated the picture and further delighted Republicans.

Steve Harvey, a Democratic state House candidate who attended a Bennet fundraiser Friday, acknowledged that the Senate primary has not been a good thing when it comes to the general election in the battleground state.

“I understand [Romanoff’s] disappointment” over not getting the Senate appointment, Harvey said. “But once that ship sailed, I don’t think it serves the interest of the Democratic Party and the progressive agenda for him to primary Bennet.”

Bennet said Saturday that he regrets the amount of money he’s had to spend against Romanoff.

“I wish we could have spent it on the general,” he said. “But I think I’ve gotten better as a candidate. I think the campaign is better” because of it.

Bennet’s unrefined charm on the campaign trail seems to be one trait that the primary has helped him hone. It may give him a boost in an election year where so many voters are fed up with politics as usual.

“It’s refreshing [that] he’s kind of new to the game,” said Maria Fenwick, 5-year-old Kalyssa’s mother, after Saturday’s SEIU meeting. “Politicians are so polished these days, it’s a turnoff. I just want a real person.”

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