Underdogs Steal Spotlight In Colorado Primaries This year, voters seem in the mood to dump anyone with establishment credentials. That attitude is helping candidates like Democrat Andrew Romanoff, who is trying to beat incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet. It's also pushing GOP establishment candidate Jane Norton to pump up her tea party connections.
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Underdogs Steal Spotlight In Colorado Primaries

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Underdogs Steal Spotlight In Colorado Primaries

Underdogs Steal Spotlight In Colorado Primaries

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GUY RAZ, host:

In the Colorado primary, most of the attention is focused on the Democratic Senate race between incumbent Michael Bennet and his challenger Andrew Romanoff.

This week, the White House disclosed that it had contacted Romanoff to discuss possible jobs with the administration. It suggests the White House wanted Romanoff to drop his bid. Top Republicans are now calling for an investigation. But regardless, that race is proving tough for the incumbent.

NPR's Jeff Brady is covering the Colorado race and he has this update.

JEFF BRADY: In most political races, party establishments have a favorite candidate. They get a lot of money, much of the media attention and - if all goes well for them - the glory on Election Day.

But around the country and here in Colorado, underdog candidates are making a surprisingly strong showing. Take the Democratic primary race for senator.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Senator MICHAEL BENNET (Democrat, Colorado): And I'd ban members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists. I'm Michael Bennet and I approve this message because I'm listening to Colorado.

BRADY: Incumbent Michael Bennet would seem to have all the advantages. He was appointed to the job 18 months back, so he can still claim to be a newcomer to Washington. He has President Obama's endorsement, and there's his 6-to-1 fundraising edge over his primary opponent, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

But last month at the state Democratic assembly, party activists chose to get on board with Romanoff.

(Soundbite of train)

BRADY: Downtown Denver with trains and buses in the background is a good place to find some of these die-hard Democrats.

Mr. TONY BIANCHINI: Hi, this is Tony Bianchini from Broomfield.

BRADY: Bianchini says he supports Romanoff. He's not very specific why, but his feeling is clear.

Mr. BIANCHINI: I think Romanoff would be a better guy.

BRADY: And why is that?

Mr. BIANCHINI: It's just a sense I get. He seems more genuine.

BRADY: But, I mean, there's already a Democrat who's an incumbent in that position.

Mr. BIANCHINI: I know. But I think Romanoff would be a better guy in the office.

BRADY: Bianchini says he thinks voters are in the mood to get rid of anyone tainted with establishment credentials. If choosing Romanoff means losing the seat to Republicans, so be it, he says. And it's not just Democrats.

Ms. KATY ATKINSON (Political Analyst): I think we're seeing some of it on the Republican side.

BRADY: Katy Atkinson is a Republican consultant in Denver. She says the Tea Party movement has affected her party's primary here. The establishment candidate is former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton. But the Tea Party folks are backing Ken Buck, a district attorney from north of Denver.

His platform includes opposition to just about everything the Obama administration has done: bailing out the auto companies, the health care overhaul and the stimulus bill. His presence in the race has changed the establishment candidate's campaign.

Jane Norton is spending time burnishing her conservative credentials. Here's a TV advertisement that shows her talking tough to the White House.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Ms. JANE NORTON (Former Lieutenant Governor, Colorado; Republican Senatorial Candidate): Mr. President, you should pledge to balance the budget or else decline to seek re-election. That'd be change we could believe in.

BRADY: And just this week, Norton stepped up her effort to appeal to Tea Party activists. She held a fundraiser with Marco Rubio. He's the Tea Party-backed candidate for Senate in Florida who prompted Governor Charlie Crist to abandon the GOP and run for senator as an independent.

Analyst Katy Atkinson says Norton is giving her campaign an insurgent air by palling around with Rubio.

Ms. ATKINSON: They're campaigning together. They're fundraising together. And she is reminding Colorado Republicans every opportunity she gets that she's hanging around with them, that she's like them.

BRADY: Still, Atkinson predicts Colorado likely won't see an insurgent candidate win when the state holds its primary in August. And polling would seem to back her up on that. But in the meantime, the strong showing among underdogs is making for an unusually interesting primary season.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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