It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

A handful of races will decide control of the U.S. Senate this fall. Democrats come into the campaign with 59 seats on their side, one of their largest advantages ever, but several incumbents are working to keep their jobs.

INSKEEP: And that includes the junior senator from Colorado. Michael Bennet is a moderate Democrat in a state that's leaned Democratic in recent years. But in a year that is tough for incumbents, he faces a conservative challenger backed by the Tea Party. We'll look at both candidates this morning.

Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY: Michael Bennet was appointed to the Senate and took over that job one day after Barack Obama became President in 2009, and he's enjoyed the president's support since.

President BARACK OBAMA: Youve got to have more leaders like Michael Bennet.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BRADY: This advertisement aired during Bennet's bruising primary battle, which he won by a healthy margin. But it didn't take long for Senator Bennet to start distancing himself from President Obama. On August 11th, Bennet was asked on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED whether he wanted Mr. Obama to campaign for him during the general election.

Senator MICHAEL BENNET (Democrat, Colorado): I don't know. I think it certainly helped during the primary and we'll make a judgment going forward.

BRADY: So far, President Obama has not traveled to Colorado on Bennet's behalf for the November election. These days, Senator Bennet is focused on touting his moderate credentials. Here he is at a debate in Colorado Springs last week, talking through a scratchy loudspeaker.

Sen. BENNET: I have voted more with the other party than two-thirds of the members of the United States Senate, Republican and Democrat.

BRADY: Look at the numbers in Colorado and you'll see why Bennet has changed his message. Polls show the race is tight and his Republican opponent, Ken Buck, may actually be slightly ahead. This is surprising because Buck is widely seen as more conservative than most Coloradans, especially on issues like abortion and immigration. Bennet is the type of middle-of-the-road Democrat who's done well in Colorado in recent years.

Seth Masket teaches political science at the University of Denver.

Professor SETH MASKET (University of Denver): Yeah, the more moderate candidate should, all things being equal, be doing somewhat better than the more extreme candidate. In this year, though, all things are not equal. There's a very strong national tide against the Democrats right now and for the Republicans.

BRADY: And, Masket says, in the general election Bennet has to appeal to the third of Colorado voters who don't belong to a political party. These unaffiliated voters can be a fickle bunch. Two years ago, most were strong supporters of Barack Obama and they helped him win this state. But the economy has worsened in Colorado. Many of those voters have turned against the president and, it appears, anyone who's allied with him.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

BRADY: On the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver, it's easy to find unaffiliated voters, like Bob Johnson, who are fed up.

Mr. BOB JOHNSON: The voters want people out that are in and they really don't care, to a certain extent, whether they're Democrats or Republicans.

BRADY: Johnson says Bennet's biggest mistake was voting for the president's health care overhaul, plus his support for the stimulus bill.

Mr. JOHNSON: Nothing's going - I mean, we're trillions of dollars in debt and everybody is saying we can't keep doing this and they keep doing it.

BRADY: While the economy is the focus around the country, recently Democrats in Colorado have started talking more about abortion. The message is aimed at unaffiliated voters like Amanda Poltera, who says she's voting for Bennet.

Ms. AMANDA POLTERA: He seems to be the only candidate that's not anti-abortion.

BRADY: While Poltera says she'll vote for Bennet, she's not going to be one of his more exuberant supporters.

Ms. POLTERA: I'm not really excited about him as a candidate; he's kind of overspent in Washington. But as far as, like, what my options are, as far as keeping my rights, you know, reproductive rights especially, then yeah, Bennet's the only way to go on that.

BRADY: Not a ringing endorsement, but in this close race even lukewarm support from a small group of voters could make a difference.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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