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For the longest time, here's how the U.S. Senate race in Colorado looked: The Democrats who are beating up each other, while Republicans were on cruise control, not a speed bump inside for their anointed candidate.

Well, the Democrats are still attacking each other, but the Republican scene is no longer serene. The establishment choice, former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, is now struggling against a Tea Party-backed insurgent.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Denver on what has become a GOP slugfest.

JEFF BRADY: If this were any other year, you could say Jane Norton did just about everything right. She launched her campaign early, raised a lot of money and lined up big endorsements. But this is not any other year.

In recent months, another candidate without Norton's advantages is making a strong showing. Local District Attorney Ken Buck is appealing to the GOP faithful, often at Tea Party events like this one recently in a school gymnasium, southeast of Denver.

(Soundbite of music)

BRADY: Like most Tea Party gatherings, it starts with a patriotic song and the Pledge of Allegiance. Ken Buck talks about the 2nd Amendment and receives vigorous applause when he says congressional bills should be posted on the Internet three days before they're voted on so constituents can comment. And he says legislation should be limited to 100 pages.

Outside the meeting, he points to President Obama's health care overhaul.

Mr. KEN BUCK (District Attorney, Weld County): People distrust 2,900-page bills. They think there are things being hidden and they're right. There are things being hidden in 2,900-page bills.

BRADY: Buck knows how to talk to Tea Party activists. Home-school mom Debbie Chaves says she's voting for Buck because he seems honest.

Ms. DEBBIE CHAVES: That's what people want. They want somebody that's one of us, not somebody that is chosen by an establishment that is trained to behave a certain way.

BRADY: For Jane Norton, though, it's clearly difficult to accept Ken Buck as an outsider. He worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado before he was a D.A.

Here's Norton recently on Colorado Public Radio.

Ms. JANE NORTON (Republican, Colorado Senatorial Candidate): He has been a government attorney since 1988. He's been in the system. His wife was the vice chairman of the Republican Party for eight years.

BRADY: As Norton and Buck fight over who's the real insider, it's worth noting that on policy issues they're nearly identical. Both oppose abortion, illegal immigration and big government.

They do have one difference. Five years ago, they took opposing sides on Referendum C. It gave the state permission to take a time-out from a tax limitation measure passed in 1992.

The conservative group Americans for Job Security took note of this and is airing TV ads in Colorado.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Yet Jane Norton supported the largest tax hike in Colorado history, costing us billions.

BRADY: Whether or not it's true, it remains a hot-button topic for conservative Republicans. Norton responded with ads that demonstrates just how nasty this race has become. The latest includes a comment Buck recently made.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Mr. BUCK: Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NORTON: Play that again.

Mr. BUCK: Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels.

BRADY: Buck says he was just trying to be funny and was playing off an earlier comment by Norton's campaign manager about her going to Washington and kicking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the shin with her high heels.

Polls show the race between Norton and Buck is close. But pollster Floyd Ciruli warns it could be difficult to get an accurate picture of the electorate before the August 10 primary.

Mr. FLOYD CIRULI (Pollster): August 10th, most people are on vacation, they're distracted, including partisans, so that a few hundred thousand Republicans out of more than a million registered Republicans will turn out and decide this issue.

BRADY: Ciruli says one thing is certain: Whoever wins, Colorado will have one of the most conservative Republican Senate nominees in the country. Any other year, that might hurt a candidate in the general election. But, again, this is not any other year.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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