Colorado Senate race a question of definition |

Colorado Senate race a question of definition

Associated Press Writer
In this Aug. 28, 2010 photo, Republican Ken Buck and his wife, Perry Buck, await the beginning of the Colorado State Fair Parade in Pueblo, Colo. Buck is defending himself against accusations from Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet that he's too conservative to represent the state. (AP Photo/Kristen Wyatt)

PUEBLO, Colorado – Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck is a far-right ideologue or a principled conservative who sticks to his beliefs when they’re not popular. It all depends on who’s describing Buck, and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s ability to do so could decide the fate of his own tough re-election bid.

Democrats say Buck’s too conservative for Colorado: He opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest and wants to dismantle vital functions of the federal government. Buck won’t apologize for his stands and emphasizes he’d focus as senator on cutting federal spending – something the GOP considers a winning strategy.

Whose depiction will stick?

With polls showing Buck unseating Bennet, and control of the Senate at stake, mudslinging is unlikely to abate through Election Day. Voters will be left to suss through campaign messages when neither candidate was well known before this contest began.

A group of left-leaning organizations, including Planned Parenthood in Denver, have formed a coalition to fight Buck with the tag line, “Too Crazy For Colorado.”

Bennet’s first general-election ad made a similar point. It’s a montage of Buck clips recorded during his long primary contest against former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. Here Buck rails against the U.S. Department of Education. There he calls Social Security “horrible policy.” And then he says he opposes abortion in cases of rape or incest and describes himself as “an extremist.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aired an attack ad saying Buck favors repealing the 17th Amendment, which set up the popular election of senators. Buck did make such a comment more than a year ago – but he has changed his mind and said he supports direct election of senators.

Still, the ad convinced Rudolph Martinez, 62, a Pueblo Democrat and retired correctional officer who shook Buck’s hand during the Colorado State Fair. He said Buck seems a likable guy.

“I don’t really have anything against him,” Martinez said. “But the people need the vote, and when you take that away from us, we lose the whole country. So he’s just a little extreme for me.”

Martinez’s son, 44-year-old Rudy Martinez, disagreed. The younger Martinez said he likes Buck’s approach.

“Our country is going down the tubes,” he said, shaking his head.

Buck insists his comments are taken out of context and skewed.

“I am what I am. I don’t think I’m too conservative,” Buck said while waiting for the state fair parade to start.

He said the 17th Amendment ad is evidence Democrats would rather use “gotcha” clips against him than have a debate about federal spending.

“It was half of a sentence of something I said more than a year ago. I think voters are smart enough to see through that,” he said.

Democrats do have a point that Buck can send mixed messages.

Take the Education Department. Buck spent more than a year blasting the department, even saying once that the federal government shouldn’t be in the student loan business. But when asked whether he’d work to eliminate the department, Buck backtracked and said the department would have to be folded slowly. He added he was talking about student loans for future generations, not current students.

Bennet sometimes sends confusing messages himself. The rookie senator rejects what he calls the Washington “screaming match” style of politics – something in which his campaign appears to be engaged.

The day after Bennet’s campaign started airing the Buck attack ad, Bennet told voters at a town hall in Colorado Springs he prefers calm, reasoned debate. Asked about the dissonance after the town hall, Bennet defended his ad.

“I don’t think my ad has anything to do with partisanship at all,” Bennet said. “I don’t know what could be more truthful than putting on someone’s own words, which is what we did.”

Bennet’s backers seem divided about how best to hold the seat against Buck.

“I say they should just hammer away at him for his extreme views,” said Democrat Steve Walker of Colorado Springs, who came to Bennet’s town hall.

At a volunteer rally in Denver a few days later, though, one Bennet volunteer worried about the campaign’s tone.

“I understand he has to respond to their attacks, but I would say, ‘Don’t stoop to their level,”‘ said Marlene Wenk, a retired social worker.

It’s a campaign being waged with families like the Martinez clan, whose members are unhappy with the direction of the country but unsure whether they can back Buck. Even the younger Martinez, the one angry at Democrats, says he likely won’t decide until November.

“I’ll vote for whoever can get the job done,” Martinez said. “Don’t ask me yet who that is.”

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