DENVER — Bob Schaffer's opponents have spent the past two months tarring him as "Big Oil Bob," an advocate of oil drilling and an energy-industry insider. Maybe he should thank them.
The reason, according to one poll, lies in fuel prices. Since gas hit $4 a gallon here, a majority of Colorado voters have come out in favor of offshore oil drilling and exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said a Quinnipiac Poll released last week.
At the same time, Mr. Schaffer went from trailing Mr. Udall by 10 percentage points in June - 49 percent to 39 percent - to a 44 percent to 44 percent tie in July. The June survey of 1,351 likely Colorado voters had an error margin of 2.7 percentage points; the July poll of 1,425 likely voters had a 2.6-point margin.
A second survey, conducted by Rasmussen Reports, found Mr. Udall leading by four percentage points - but the 47 percent to 43 percent lead was within the poll's margin and half the nine-point lead Mr. Udall had in that survey in June. Both Rasmussen polls had 500 likely voters and an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.
Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown also noted that Colorado voters now consider energy policy more important than the war in Iraq.
"That 'Big Oil Bob' label has suddenly become an accolade," Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said. "I'll bet he's quite pleased to be Big Oil Bob. He's arguing that we should find more production and that the Democrats are restricted by their excessive environmentalism."
The turnaround in the Senate race in Colorado is a glimmer of hope for national Republicans, who may have found an issue that can slow or even turn this year's Democratic tide.
"The main reason these polls have closed is that the dynamics of the energy issue have dramatically changed," said Schaffer campaign manager Dick Wadhams. "The public wants more drilling, they want more exploration, and people like Boulder liberal Mark Udall have essentially killed domestic exploration for the past 20 years."
If there's any candidate in the state whose name is synonymous these days with fossil fuels, it's Mr. Schaffer. One TV ad sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters shows a photo of Mr. Schaffer with oil rigs pumping in the background.
"When you look at Bob Schaffer's resume, one thing comes through: Oil," the ad intones.
Mr. Schaffer, a former congressman who later took a job with a midsized Colorado oil and gas company, has called for both renewable energy and "American-based conventional energy resources," including offshore and ANWR oil exploration.
Mr. Udall, a four-term congressman, has made energy policy the centerpiece of his campaign, but his focus has been on reducing foreign-oil dependence through conservation and renewable energy sources such as solar, biomass and wind.
At the candidates' July 14 debate, Mr. Udall said he was in favor of "responsible drilling" while faulting Mr. Schaffer for failing to jump aboard plans to explore alternative energy strategies.
"If he'd followed my leadership when he was in Congress, we'd be using 1 million less barrels of oil a day," Mr. Udall said.
Mr. Schaffer blamed Democratic tax policies and environmentalism for the recent rise in gas prices. The Schaffer campaign also has blasted Mr. Udall for supporting a 50-cent increase in the federal gas tax in 2002.
"The $4.11 gasoline is an unfortunate tragedy and it is not by accident," Mr. Schaffer said at the debate. "It is a function of limiting and restricting America's ability to provide its own energy."
Mr. Udall, meanwhile, took several shots at his opponent for backing tax reductions for the oil and gas industry.
"I don't think anyone here thinks the oil and gas industry needs additional tax breaks," Mr. Udall said. "What we need to do is take those tax breaks and put them into a new energy economy."