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Senate primary in Colorado illustrates battle for direction of Republican Party

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010; A02

COLORADO SPRINGS -- The hotly contested race for the Republican Senate nomination in Colorado has been described as party establishment vs. "tea party" activists. But in the campaign's final weeks, it has turned into something more bizarre: high heels vs. dung-stained boots.

Wearing the heels is Jane Norton, a former lieutenant governor and favorite of the party establishment. Wearing the boots is Ken Buck, the Weld County district attorney and darling of tea party and grass-roots conservative activists.

Buck had the momentum in the race before this week, when a video appeared of him speaking at an outdoor rally. "Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels," he said to laughter and then groans in the background.

He then went on to describe his own footwear -- in salty language. "She has questioned my manhood," he said. "I think it's fair to respond. I have cowboy boots on. They have real [cow manure] on 'em. That's Weld County [cow manure], not Washington D.C. [cow manure]."

By Thursday morning, the video was featured in a Norton ad, a clear effort to rally female voters. "Play that again," the female narrator says with a tone of indignation. The ad then turns Buck's line about having manure on his boots against him. "Now Ken Buck wants to go to Washington? He'd fit right in."

The heels-vs.-boots dustup is the latest unexpected twist in what has become a fierce battle over the future direction of the Republican Party. Republicans are determined to win in November the seat of Michael Bennet, a Democratic appointee. The question is, who would be the stronger challenger? Norton was the early front-runner. But Buck had picked up momentum in the race, or he had before the footwear flap, which appears to have given Norton a second boost.

For Republicans to take control of the Senate this fall, Colorado is one of a number of must-win states. Another is Nevada, where the GOP hopes to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid. Those hopes diminished when the campaign of Reid's Republican challenger, tea party favorite Sharron Angle, got off to a difficult start. And in Kentucky, libertarian conservative Rand Paul embarrassed the GOP establishment by knocking off their favored candidate in the primary -- and promptly cause an uproar by questioning parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Colorado's Aug. 10 primary will offer the latest evidence of the strength of tea party activists and GOP prospects in November.

Norton was recruited to run by, among others, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The NRSC is officially neutral in the race, but last month Norton and Cornyn appeared at a fundraiser together. The proceeds were split between her campaign and the NRSC.

Buck began to gain attention only after he upset Norton in the party caucuses this spring. He has the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who has parted company with party officials in Washington in several primaries this year.

There is some history to this boots-and-heels business. Last spring, Norton's campaign manager said that Republicans in Washington needed someone to "kick Harry Reid in the shins, and Jane is going to do that with her high heels."

More recently, a peeved Norton taunted Buck, complaining that, instead of relying on independently funded conservative groups to attack her with TV ads, he ought to be "man enough to do it himself." Republicans have long seen Colorado as a prime takeover opportunity. Bennet was appointed to the seat when President Obama selected then-Sen. Ken Salazar as Interior secretary and is vulnerable in a year when Democrats generally are on the defensive.

Bennet has the support of Obama and the Democratic establishment, but has been challenged by Andrew Romanoff, Colorado's former Democratic House speaker, who has the backing of former president Bill Clinton. Bennet in favored to win the primary, which has also turned negative.

Republicans are now weighing their choices. Lu Busse, a leader of the 9/12 movement in Colorado, a cousin to the tea party, said the issue differences between Buck and Norton are "not as clear cut" as some have suggested. But she said some activists question whether Norton "is tough enough to stand up to the Washington insiders and the people you've got to stand up to."

In a telephone interview, Norton sought to distance herself from the establishment.

"I just think it's a political trick that my opponent has laid on me because the anti-establishment sentiment is really strong," she said. "Anything having to do with Washington is a negative right now."

Buck, meanwhile, tried to play down his association with the tea party movement. "I wasn't drafted by the tea party," he said. "I started about the same time that the tea party was rockin' and rollin'. . . . So I think my candidacy and the evolution of the tea party were parallel events."

But he made clear that he sees his mission is to shake up both parties in Washington:

"There is a conservative movement within the Republican Party that distinguishes a lot of us, and we recognize that Republicans are a big part of the problem. . . . I don't have any deep friends in Washington now, and in six years I won't have any friends."

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